According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, about 8,000 people a year receive venomous snake bites in the United States, and only 9 to 15 victims (.2%) die. In fact more people die from wasp and bee stings than from snake bites. Most of the fatalities received no medical treatment or first aid. The same simple care one takes around wasp nests and busy roads also suffices to keep the risk of snake bite to acceptable levels. Nonetheless, venomous snakes must be considered dangerous and even non-fatal bites can cause severe pain and long-lasting tissue damage.
Some bites, such as those inflicted when snakes are accidentally stepped on or encountered in wilderness settings, are nearly impossible to prevent. But experts say a few precautions can lower the risk of being bitten:
- Leave snakes alone. Many people are bitten when they try to kill a snake or get a closer look at it.
- Stay out of tall grass and remain on hiking paths as much as possible.
- Keep hands and feet out of areas you can't see. Don't pick up rocks or firewood unless you are out of a snake's striking distance. (A snake can strike half its length.)
- Be cautious and alert when climbing rocks.
What do you do if you suddenly encounter a snake? If you must walk around the snake, give it some room--at least six feet. Otherwise, walk away. Leave it alone and don't try to catch it.
Though venomous snakes can be dangerous, snake venom may have a positive side. Clinical trials are presently under way to test the therapeutic value of a venom-derived product called ancrod in treating stroke. Earlier proposals, using snake venom to treat neuromuscular disorders such as multiple sclerosis, never reached the clinical trial stage.
Living with venomous snakes is really no different than living with hornets, or other minor risks of daily life. If one finds a hornet nest, one does not disturb it. The same caution should be applied if one sees a snake. Injury may result if hornets or snakes are disturbed or harassed. However, in North America human injuries from playing sports or slipping in the bathtub are far more common than are injuries from snakes. Venomous snakes are simply not a significant human health issue in North America. The appropriate response to encountering a snake is to simply walk away. Do not attempt to capture or kill it, as 70-80% of bites occur in this manner.