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September 1997

Insect Stings: What’s Bugging You?

If the thought of a spider bite or bee sting makes your skin crawl, then preventing a painful encounter is the key.


An estimated 200 species of snakes worldwide carry venom that’s potentially lethal to humans. A best guess by experts places the number of snake bite deaths each year at more than 50,000, although few occur in the United States (none in 1990, one in 1991, and one in 1992). Just about all poisonous snake bites recorded in the United States are the result of a run-in with pit vipers, more commonly known as rattlesnakes, copperheads, and water moccasins.

All pit vipers have distinctly triangular heads, catlike pupils, and heat-sensitive pits between eyes and nostrils. When provoked to strike, their jaws open alarmingly wide and bite, then venom is ejected down canals within the fangs and into the victim. The amount and toxicity of the venom depends on the type of viper you’re dealing with. For instance, the Mojave rattlesnake’s poison is about 44 times more potent than that of the southern copperhead.

The other family of potentially lethal slitherers is coral snakes, although they pose little threat. All coral snakes found in the United States can be identified by a particular color sequence: “Red on black, venom lack; red on yellow, kill a fellow.” In other words, red bands bordered by yellow bands equals danger. The short, fixed fangs in the front of the snake’s small mouth make it all but impossible for this reptile to bite anything other than a finger, toe, or fold of skin, and it usually has to hang on and chew to inflict damage.

In general, your level of risk after being bitten depends on a bunch of variables, including your age, size, health, emotional stability, whether or not you’re allergic to the venom, location of the bite (near vital organs is the most dangerous), depth of the bite, the species and size of the snake, and first-aid measures taken after the bite. Because it’s so difficult to determine the seriousness of a snake bite in the backcountry, the best course of action is to evacuate the person either by carrying him, or if he appears fairly stable, let him slowly walk to the trailhead. Get him to a medical facility as quickly as possible so antivenin can be administered if needed.

Under no circumstances should you cut the bite area and try to suck the venom out with your mouth. This can cause infection and is ineffective. There are snake bite kits on the market that come with a suction cup, which when placed over the bite, literally sucks venom out. The key is to start suction within the first five minutes, and keep it up for about half an hour.

Don’t give painkillers unless the person is calm and rational. Don’t apply ice or immerse the wound in cold water. Above all, don’t apply a tourniquet, give alcohol to the victim, or administer electric shock. Most old-time remedies actually do nothing except inhibit recovery.

When camping in snake habitat, avoid walking around at night. If you must wander after dark, carry a flashlight and wear boots. Don’t put your hands and feet in places you haven’t visually inspected first. Stay away from wood and rock piles, caves, swampy areas, and sunwashed rock ledges. Snakes just want to be left alone, so don’t bother them.

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