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Straight Talk About Snakebites

How to prevent a snakebite, what to do in an emergency

Red and yellow sign warning of rattlesnakes in area.

How to prevent a snakebite, what to do in an emergency

Don’t let fear of snakes stop you and your family from hiking or biking the trails as the days heat up and sunlight lingers.

While you should stay away from venomous snakes, you are more likely to die from a lightning strike than from a snakebite. Of the 7,000 to 8,000 people in the United States bitten annually by venomous snakes approximately five die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

To stay safe, arm yourself with prevention and protection tips.

“Educate yourself, be smart and make good choices, but understand that you are pretty unlikely to be harmed by a snake,” says Christen Benke, DO, a family medicine physician at Scripps Clinic Del Mar. “If you do get bit, hospitals are well-equipped with antivenom procedures. Snake bites rarely result in fatalities, especially if you know how to respond.”

Prevention tips

Taking a few precautions and staying aware of your surroundings can go a long way toward preventing a trip to the emergency room.

  • Hide your ankles and wear sturdy shoes. High ankle socks will help protect your ankles from unexpected snakebites while hiking or running.
  • Heed the warning signs. Always stay on the trail. Crevices between rocks, tall thick grass and mossy areas near waterfalls or rivers are favorite hang-outs for snakes.
  • Pay attention. Watch where you plant your feet. You don’t want to frighten a sun-bathing snake in the middle of the trail or golf course.
  • If you see a snake, don’t panic. Slowly back away from the snake and either try to find a way around or go back the way you came. Snakes tend not to harm people unless they are provoked. Respect their space, and they will respect yours. Never taunt a snake.
  • Carry your cell phone.
  • Hike or run with someone if possible. If you do get bit, having someone to assist you will be helpful.
  • To remove a snake from your property, call County Animal Control at 619-236-2342. 
  • Avoid nighttime trail walks. Snakes can be active during the day, but are also nocturnal since they have to remain in motion on cold nights to maintain their body temperature. Snakes also hunt at night since their heat sensors allow them to detect prey unseen. It’s too easy to miss seeing a snake in the dark.

What to do if you’re bit

If you are bit by a venomous snake, stay calm and act quickly. Symptoms of a poisonous bite include extreme pain, swelling and color change at the site, as well as lightheadedness.

 Call 911 immediately

“Your goal is to get to a hospital as soon as possible to be assessed for possible antivenom treatment,” says Dr. Benke. “For best results, antivenom treatment should be given as soon as possible after the bite. It is usually given within four hours of a bite.”


  • Remove jewelry or constricting clothing near the bitten area that may constrict swelling.
  • Keep affected area below heart level if possible to keep venom from spreading.

What not to do

  • Don’t apply a tourniquet. This may cut off blood flow to the affected area.
  • Don’t pack the bite area in ice.
  • Don’t cut the wound with a knife or razor. Making an incision may damage internal body structures.
  • Don’t use your mouth to suck out the venom. Suctioning devices have proved ineffective at removing venom.
  • Don’t drink alcohol, caffeine or take any medication.
  • Don’t use a snakebite kit. Commercial kits often contain a blade for making an incision, which may damage internal body structures. The kits sometimes also include suction devices, which are ineffective at removing venom.

What to look for

It’s important to know the types of snakes you might encounter on certain trails or walking the golf course. In Southern California, the most common venomous snake you are likely to stumble upon is the rattlesnake. There are several species of rattlesnakes that frequent the region, but the Western Rattlesnake, or Southern Diamond, is the most common.

Rattlesnakes are usually quite easy to identify:

  • Triangular-shaped head
  • Spotted body
  • Distinctive rattle on the tail

Baby rattlesnakes are dangerous because they usually release as much venom as they can to protect themselves.

For more information, call the California Poison Control System at (800) 222-1222. 

“Rattlesnakes are a fact of life in Southern California,” says Dr. Benke. “Be informed and then go outside and enjoy the warm weather.”