Monday, June 27, 2011

Anatomy of a Snake Bite

How to get bitten by a Copperhead

Copperhead- click to enlarge
We had a Copperhead bite incident on Bull Creek this weekend.  After watching a Northern Water Snake swimming round in our swimming hole many times over the years including several hours the day before, one of our guests felt comfortable with identifying it.

Just as they were leaving from a weekend visit today, a snake swam across the water and crawled out on the solid rock shelf near where they were standing.  Our guest decided to catch this "Water Snake" and grabbed it by the tail first.  The snake tried desperately to escape the grip including crawling between the man's legs and over his sneakers.

Fang puncture sites
Eventually he grabbed the snake two inches behind its head.  In a split second, the snake flipped its head around and bit him twice, one on the index finger's second knuckle and one on the web of the thumb.  He dropped the snake and immediately commented that it hurt a lot more than a "normal snake bite" (comparing it to past bites by a rat snake and garter snakes.)

Within a minute he was having severe throbbing pain in the hand which was swelling rapidly.  He wasn't able to ID the snake from pictures in Amphibians and Reptiles of Missouri.*   His buddy then got the camera and showed me the picture above, an easy diagnosis.

In the Emergency Room, it took two shots of morphine to begin to touch the pain.  Within a few hours his arm was tightly swollen up to the shoulder.  After the administration of anti-venom, he was watched in the ICU overnight as anaphylactic type reactions to it are common and can be quite severe.  He is still requiring morphine 48 hours later.

Venomous snakes do not want to waste their precious venom on large bipeds.  They probably want to reserve it for small mammals that will fit in their mouths after paralyzing them with their venom.  Like most animals, they bite larger mammals only in defense.

Studies have shown risk factors for snake bite include male gender, intentional snake handling and alcohol.  Virtually all snake bites occur from contacting a snake, either deliberately or by stepping on or near it.

New 2016 Study
This study in Wilderness and Environmental Medicine found that 68% of the 332 bites reported were found to be legitimate, meaning the victim was unaware of the snake's presence.

Missouri Conservationist, May 1999 issue had detailed information on copperheads. has general snake information. has information on first aid. 
Amphibians and Reptiles of Missouri - Tom Johnson


  1. Bob,
    Am I correct that, if bitten by a venomous snake, you should have the hospital or ER conduct some sort of test to determine whether your are allergic to the anti-venom serum? Seems that I remember that some folks can react quite violently to the "cure".

  2. "Studies have shown risk factors for snake bite include male gender, intentional snake handling and alcohol." Sounds right to me. Kinda reminds me of the Famous Last Words quip: "Hold my beer and watch this."

  3. George, if u are allergic to horses you will have a severe reaction anti-venom. In fact the cure may kill you. Medical personnel should ask if you are allergic to horses before administering any anti-venom regimen.

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