The Most Dangerous Snakes in the U.S.

July 22, 2013 in Trivia

A Coral Snake

Shown is a coral snake. Source: UNM College of Pharmacy.

In the United States, the most common snakes to watch out for are rattlesnakes, copperheads, cottonmouths (also called water moccasins), and coral snakes. Risk of encountering these several types of snake varies geographically and by environmental setting.

According to the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, poisonous snake bites are especially dangerous for outdoor workers such as farmers, foresters, landscapers, groundskeepers, gardeners, painters, roofers, pavers, construction workers, laborers, mechanics, and any other workers who spend time outside. An estimated 7,000 to 8,000 people are bitten by poisonous snakes every year in the U.S. About five of those people die as a result. Many more would die but for the fact people bitten generally seek medical care immediately.

Rattlesnakes may be found sunning themselves near logs, boulders, or open areas. They are found throughout the U.S. and may be found in most work habitats including the mountains, prairies, deserts, and beaches. Rattlers are the largest of all venomous snakes in the U.S. and can accurately strike at up to one third their body length. They use their rattles or tails as a warning when they feel threatened.

Copperheads are often found in forests, rocky areas, swamps, or near sources of water like rivers. They are found primarily in the eastern states but as far west as Texas. They vary in color from reddish to golden tan. The colored bands on their body are typically hourglass-shaped. Most adult copperheads are 18 to 36 inches long. They are not usually aggressive and often will freeze when frightened. Risk of snakebite from copperheads usually comes by accidentally stepping on or near the animal.

Cottonmouth snakes, also known as water moccasins, frequently are found in or around water. They are native to wetland areas, rivers, and lakes in the southeastern states. Typically they extend 50 to 55 inches long. Adult cottonmouths’ skin is dark tan, brown, or nearly black, with vague black or dark brown cross-bands. Juvenile cottonmouths have a bold orange and brown cross-band pattern and a yellow tail. Cottonmouths do not scare easily. They will defend themselves when threatened.

Coral snakes tend to hide in leaf piles or burrow into the ground. They are noted to inhabit wooded, sandy, or marshy areas of the southern U.S. Their colored bands distinguish them. They appear similar to king snakes, which are not venomous. If a snake’s red and yellow bands touch each other, it is a coral snake.

Various signs or symptoms of snake bite:

- A pair of puncture marks at the wound.

- Redness and swelling around the bite.

- Severe pain at the site of the bite.

- Nausea and vomiting.

- Labored breathing. In extreme cases, breathing may stop altogether.

- Disturbed vision.

- Increased salivation and sweating.

- Numbness or tingling around the face and/or limbs

Guidelines to avoid a snake bite:

- Do not try to handle any snake.

- Stay away from tall grass and piles of leaves when possible.

- Avoid climbing on rocks or piles of wood where a snake may be hiding.

- Be aware that snakes tend to be active at night and in warm weather.

- Wear boots and long pants when working outdoors.

- Wear leather gloves when handling brush and debris.

If you are bitten by a snake, do not pick it up or try to trap it. Do not wait for symptoms to appear. Seek medical help immediately. Call 911 or your emergency medical services. Try to remember the color and shape of the snake. Keep still and calm to slow down the spread of venom.

CDC advises, if you cannot get to the hospital right away you should lay or sit down with the bite below the level of the heart. Wash the bite with soap and water. Cover the bite with a clean, dry dressing. Do not apply a tourniquet. Do not slash the wound with a knife. Do not suck out the venom. Do not apply ice or immerse the wound in water. Do not drink alcohol as a painkiller. Do not drink caffeinated beverages.

More information on preventing or responding to snake bites can found at the following web resources:

CDC Emergency Preparedness and Response: How to Prevent or Respond to a Snake Bite

CDC Snakes: Pictorial Key to Venomous Species in the United States