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How to Treat a Snake Bite

Contributor: Regan Marsh, MD, MPH
5 minute read
Snake bites can occur in the wilderness

Snake bites can be scary. They often occur far from the hospital, in the wilderness or in remote settings. You may encounter snakes on a hike, running on trails, or while camping in the woods.

Regan Marsh, MD, MPH, a Mass General Brigham emergency medicine doctor, provides helpful tips if you or a companion experience a snake bite.

What to do when a snake bites

Not all snakes are venomous. But if someone is bitten by a snake, you’ll want to act fast, especially if it’s a child or an older person. Try to keep calm and follow these steps if you’re faced with this emergency.

Step 1: Get to an emergency room as soon as possible for snake bite care.

If you can safely and without delay get to the ER, take a photo of the snake. Time is critical. If it’s needed, antivenom treatment should be given by the doctors as soon as possible.

Step 2: Call 9-1-1 immediately and check for symptoms.

Tell the dispatcher if you or a companion experience:

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting

  • Dizziness or severe weakness

  • Blurred vision

  • Rapid heart rate or weak pulse

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Significant swelling

Step 3: Comfort, dress, and document.

While you wait for emergency services, here’s what you can do:

  • Remove jewelry, watches, and constricting athletic gear or clothing.

  • Clean the bite with soap and water.

  • Cover with a clean, dry bandage.

  • Mark the edge of the bite to track any changes or growth in redness or swelling.

Stay safe after a snake bite.

You may have heard some tips for snake bite care that can be harmful.

Do not:

  • Touch or handle a living or dead venomous snake.

  • Apply a tourniquet.

  • Attempt to cut or suck out poison.

  • Give the bitten person alcohol or painkillers such as aspirin or naproxen (acetaminophen is okay).

  • Apply ice to the bite.

  • Immerse the bite in water.


Doctors use antivenom (sometimes called antivenin) to treat bites. They’re often developed from specific snake bite venoms, so knowing the species of snake that bit you can be extremely valuable information.

Types of venomous snake bites

Venomous snakes are found in many locations and habitats, from mountains to desert to water environments. Common venomous snakes in the United States include:


Rattlesnakes include many species and live throughout the United States. They are often found sunning themselves in open spaces and will usually (but not always) use their rattles if they feel threatened. Some common rattlesnake species include sidewinders and diamondbacks.

Diamondback rattlesnake


Copperheads typically live in rocky or swampy areas in eastern states but some live as far west as Texas. They aren’t aggressive. Most copperhead snake bites occur when a person steps on the snake.

Northern copperhead

Coral snakes

Wooded or marsh areas in the southern U.S. are the native habitats of coral snakes, where they hide in leaf piles or holes in the ground. They may be mistaken for the (non-venomous) king snake due to similar coloring and banding.

Eastern coral snake

Water moccasins (also called cottonmouths)

Primarily found close to lakes and rivers in the southeastern United States, cottonmouths have more distinct patterns when they are young. Adult water moccasins have skin that blends to nearly solid tan, brown, or black.

Water moccasin (cottonmouth)

Play it safe with quick snake bite care.

As with any emergency situation, the key to a good outcome is to get medical attention as quickly as you can. Though most snake bites are usually minor first aid concerns, it’s good to know what to do if bitten. Play it safe and call 9-1-1 or if possible, head to an emergency room or doctor nearby.

Regan Marsh, MD headshot


Emergency Medicine Doctor