Bites by venomous snakes result in a wide range of effects, from simple puncture wounds to life-threatening illness and death. The findings following a venomous snakebite can be misleading. A victim can have no initial significant symptoms, and then suddenly develop breathing difficulty and go into shock.
Signs and symptoms of snake poisoning can be broken into a few major categories:
- Local effects: Bites by vipers and some cobras (Naja and other genera) are painful and tender. They can be severely swollen and can bleed and blister. Some cobra venoms can also kill the tissue around the site of the bite.
- Bleeding: Bites by vipers and some Australian elapids can cause bleeding of internal organs such as the brain or bowels. A victim may bleed from the bite site or bleed spontaneously from the mouth or old wounds. Unchecked bleeding can cause shock or even death.
- Nervous system effects: Venom from elapids and sea snakes can affect the nervous system directly. Cobra (Naja and other genera) and mamba (Dendroaspis) venom can act particularly quickly by stopping the breathing muscles, resulting in death without treatment. Initially, victims may have vision problems, speaking and breathing trouble, and numbness.
- Muscle death: Venom from Russell's vipers (Daboia russellii), sea snakes, and some Australian elapids can directly cause muscle death in multiple areas of the body. The debris from dead muscle cells can clog the kidneys, which try to filter out the proteins. This can lead to kidney failure.
- Eyes: Spitting cobras and ringhals (cobralike snakes from Africa) can actually eject their venom quite accurately into the eyes of their victims, resulting in direct eye pain and damage.
When to Seek Medical Care
Any snakebite victim should go to a hospital emergency department unless the snake is positively identified as nonvenomous. Remember, misidentification of the snake species could be a fatal error.
Bites by nonvenomous species require good wound care. Victims should receive a tetanus booster if they have not had one within the last 5 years.