Fresh AfieldMore posts


Jul 03, 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 and species of snake, what factors make a snake bite more or less dangerous?

A: One of the most important factors is personal sensitivity. Some people are more allergic to snake venom, just as some people have a more serious reaction to insect stings. Snake bites are more serious for very young and very old people and those with compromised health. The location of the bite is important, too. Least serious are those to the hands and feet, which is good because that’s where most people are bitten. Not seeking medical attention is a serious mistake. Even if a bite does not deliver enough venom to kill immediately, it can lead to life-threatening infection.

Q: Who is most likely to be bitten?

A: Anyone can be bitten when they accidentally step on a venomous snake. However, most bites occur when people try to catch or kill snakes. The typical snakebite victim is a male between the ages of 17 and 27. Alcohol consumption usually is a contributing factor.

Q: What first aid is recommended for snakebite?

A: If you have one of the old-style snakebite kits with razor blades and suction cups, throw it away. This form of treatment has been found to be ineffective, and cutting on the hands and feet can cause serious damage to tendons. If bitten, take the following actions:

  • Move out of striking range of the snake.
  • Remain calm and minimize physical activity. Excitement and exercise increase blood flow and spread the venom, if any is present. (Remember, there’s a one-in-four chance you got a dry bite!)
  • DO NOT try to capture or kill the snake. Medical treatment will be the same regardless of the type of snake that bit you.
  • Remove rings, watches and restrictive clothing in case swelling occurs, and rinse off any venom on the skin around the bite.
  • Immobilize the bitten area to minimize venom spread.
  • Take the victim to the NEAREST doctor or medical facility. Call for emergency assistance if this will speed up transportation.
  • Call ahead to the medical facility so they can have the necessary drugs on hand.

Equally important is what not to do. DO NOT:

  • Apply ice to the bite.
  • Cut the wound or attempt to remove venom.
  • Apply a tourniquet or constricting bands.
  • Use an electrical device to shock the bite.
  • Drink alcohol or caffeinated beverages.

Q: How can I avoid snakebite?

A: Here are some ways to reduce the already tiny risk of snakebite.

  • Learn to identify venomous snakes, and know their habits.
  • Never handle venomous snakes.
  • When possible, delay work until snakes’ inactive period from November through March.
  • Wear boots and heavy trousers when working or hiking in areas where snakes live.
  • Wear a heavy, long-sleeved shirt and leather gloves when you must work with your hands around rock piles or other snake habitat.
  • Use a pole, rake, stick, etc. to probe snake-prone areas before starting work.
  • Work or hike with other people for mutual aid in case of emergency.



Image of an osage copperhead
Osage Copperhead


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.

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

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

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.

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.

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.

(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

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

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.

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.

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

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

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

Are these snakes commonly found in urban & suburban habits ?

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.

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

Recent Posts

Bald Eagle

Red, White, and Blue in Nature

Jun 28, 2020

Celebrate red, white, and blue in nature this Independence week in our Discover Nature Notes blog.

Evening Grosbeak bird

Helping Birds

Jun 22, 2020

We are loving our birds these days.  Discover why bird populations are in decline and simple ways you can help in this week's Discover Nature Note.

Father Fishes

Jun 14, 2020

Gear up for Father's Day with a tale of two fish dads, some top fishing tips, and a tasty recipe in this week's Discover Nature Note.