Published on: Jul. 3, 2012

The report of a possible fatal snakebite that occurred in Carter County on Saturday raises dozens of questions for those of us who treasure time spent outdoors. Let’s address the most pressing question first.

Q: Could this happen to me or someone I know?

A: Snakebite ranks just above falling space debris as a threat to human life.

Now that we have that out of the way and can all breathe normally again, here are some other important questions and answers about snakebite.

Q: How common are snakebites?

A: The Missouri Poison Center recorded 596 venomous snakebites in the seven-year period from 1993 through 1999, or about 85 per year. None of those was fatal. The last documented death from a copperhead bite in Missouri was in 1965. For comparison, consider the frequency of fatalities from different causes in 2002 as reported by Time Magazine:

  • Auto accidents, 44,757
  • Bicycle, 762
  • Pool drowning, 515
  • Slipping in ice or snow, 103
  • Bee or wasp stings, 66
  • Lightning, 47
  • Dog attack, 32
  • Snakebite, 2

These numbers help put the risk of snakebite in perspective. Staying indoors for fear of being bitten makes even less sense than refusing to swim, bicycle or get in a car.

Q: If nearly 100 Missourians are bitten each year, why don’t more people die of snakebite?

A: For several reasons. First, venom is an important tool, so snakes don’t waste it. Approximately one-quarter of all bites are “dry,” meaning the snake doesn’t inject any venom. This often is because the snake is trying to scare away an intruder, not kill you. Second, medical treatment for snakebite is readily available in Missouri. Third, many venomous snakes simply don’t have enough venom to kill a person. This can be because of the snake’s size or because it recently depleted its venom supply by biting a prey animal.

Q: What venomous snakes live in Missouri?

A: The Show-Me State has five venomous snakes. These are the copperhead, the cottonmouth, and the timber rattlesnake, pygmy rattlesnake and massasauga rattlesnakes. The other 30-odd snake species native to Missouri may bite if cornered or handled, but their bites are not dangerous.

Q: Are some venomous snakes more dangerous than others?

A: Yes. Bigger snakes are more dangerous, because they carry more venom. Some species’ venom is more toxic than others. Fortunately, Missouri’s most widely distributed venomous snake, the copperhead, has the least-toxic venom. The toxicity of Missouri snakes’ venom, from most toxic to least, is timber rattler, cottonmouth, pygmy rattler, massasauga and copperhead.

Q: Besides size

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On July 19th, 2012 at 9:19am david said:

snakes are earless reptiles.they are sensitive to when a snake passes by you,just stand still till it passes not walk and create vibrations.and i agree with dave for the use of touniquet or constricting band upstream of the bite, to slow down the blood going to the heart thus reducing the spread of vemon.

On July 16th, 2012 at 9:33am lowj said:

Thanks for the suggestion, Bunbun. We could send out a press release, but that wouldn't serve much purpose at this point, since the story - including information from MDC experts - already has received ample media attention. At this point, a press release might simply prolong attention to a danger that is, as you said, minimal, adding to the unnecessary anxiety. However, we have posted information on our website, so folks searching for information can find it. - Jim@mdc

On July 15th, 2012 at 6:37pm Divine Bunbun said:

Is there any way to take this information and make it a public service announcement? So many Missourians are needlessly concerned.

On July 9th, 2012 at 6:33pm Rick said:

I Know now How My Grandfather Survived A Copperhead Bite ( ie 1890's ) Iam Not Fond Of Snakes So I Do Not Go Looking For Them . And I Just As Soon Not See Any Of Them. I Thank You For The Info you Sent Me, I know Alot More Again Thanks Mo. Con.

On July 7th, 2012 at 1:07pm Greg said:

Anyone that spends time outdoors should be aware of the types of venomous snakes in their area and know how to identify them. I hope that people don't kill any snakes on site, as a previous commenter stated. The best course of action is to leave snakes alone, and keep your eyes open for them when you are in their habitat.

On July 6th, 2012 at 8:05am lowj said:

You will get no argument from me about infection from nonvenomous snakebites, Michael. I was just making the point that they aren't the same sort of threat as a cottonmouth or copperhead. BTW, as noted in my blog post, our herpetologist says timber rattlers have the most potent venom of any Missouri snake, followed by cottonmouths. Copperheads are at the bottom of the list.

On July 5th, 2012 at 7:20pm Michael said:

(1). I disagree with you on non-poison snake bites not dangerous! Many of the non-poisonous snakes have germs in their mouths, and can become infected, like the common water snakes, the black snakes that eat mice, rats, and eggs, ect. (2). Missouri snakes for the most part, are not fatal. The Cottonmouth, is probably the strongest venom, I would rather the copperhead over the cottonmouth bite. (3). The risk would be to a person with a heart problem, or weak system. Not that a strong, healthy person has nothing to worry about, but it is very unlikely to do more than be sick and some pain. I worked for the Conservation in my younger years, and I like snakes, but respect them. Michael

On July 5th, 2012 at 10:21am lowj said:

Unfortunately, news media that jumped on the "fatal snakebite" story but have been far less interested in reporting their error in assuming that the bite killed the victim. Regarding snake's secretive nature, a group of people standing around probably doesn't feel like much of a threat to a snake. About not using a tourniquet or constricting bands, this is simply the current medical advice. Cutting off blood flow to part of the body can cause serious damage and is unnecessary. As far as back-country snakebite is concerned, 1) Missouri has few places you can't get out of in an hour or two and 2) your time is better spent getting to medical help than engaging in ineffective or harmful first-aid. However, I am NOT a medical expert, so by all means go to expert sources to for medical advice. The "Extractor" mentioned in Sharon's comment is sold for use on insect stings and snake bites. The vacuum device doesn't seem to offer any different benefits than the old-style rubber cups, which medical experts say don't do any good. I am glad to see that the Extractor kit doesn't include a blade for cutting into the skin.  - Jim@mdc

On July 3rd, 2012 at 10:00pm Sharon P said:

You recommended not using the old style snake bite kits. What about a device called the Extractor, sold by Sawyer Products. I've used it many times for insect bites, but have never been bitten by a snake.

On July 3rd, 2012 at 5:45pm Anonymous said:

Thank you MDC . This story will cause many snakes to be killed on sight I am afraid though. I hope you can get the real facts out.

On July 3rd, 2012 at 4:21pm Dave said:

I would like to comment on afew things in this article. One of the things that I have noticed from personal experience is that copperheads are not secretive nor shy of humans. I have seen them come out around humans (within 10 feet of a group of talking humans) and they don't seem to mind. Now, I am wondering why you not put a constricting band "upstream" of the bite. I have heard the theroy behind that is it will slow down the blood going to the heart thus reducing the spread of vemon. But you only do that if you are afew hours away from medicial treatment. I also was wondering what to do if you are in the deep woods and get biten? Thanks for any and all info. Dave

On July 3rd, 2012 at 3:32pm lowj said:

News Flash! The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that the cause of death of the man in question was heart attack. Snakebite was a contributing factor. To answer your question, "Anonymous," copperheads are found throughout most of Missouri. However, they are secretive and very shy of humans, so most of them are never seen. - Jim@mdc

On July 3rd, 2012 at 3:22pm Ken said:

Thanks for this information. I wish it was in every newspaper in Missouri. There are so many errors in peoples opinion of snakes.

On July 3rd, 2012 at 3:19pm Anonymous said:

Are these snakes commonly found in urban & suburban habits ?

On July 3rd, 2012 at 2:49pm lowj said:

To my knowledge, never. That was my point. Your chances of dying from a copperhead bite are next to none. The average copperhead simply doesn't have enough venom to kill a healthy adult human.

On July 3rd, 2012 at 2:26pm Anonymous said:

When was the last time 'falling space debri' killed someone? Thanks
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