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Identify and Get Rid of Venomous Snakes
You’ve come across a snake in your garden, woodpile, or anywhere else around your home, so the first question you need to get answered is whether it’s venomous. The second question—regardless of the answer to the first—is how to get it to go away. Good news: You don’t have to be an expert to answer either of those questions. Here’s all you need to know.
Four to Beware Of
Let’s start with a brief clarification. Scientists and other reptile experts refer to snakes as venomous rather than poisonous. A creature (or plant) that is poisonous contains toxins that cause you harm when you bite into it. A venomous snake injects you with a toxin when it bites you.
In North America, you’ll encounter only four types of snakes that are venomous. Three of them—cottonmouths, copperheads, and rattlesnakes—are different kinds of pit vipers. The fourth is the coral snake, a colorful species that looks very similar to other nonvenomous species.
- Cottonmouths are dark in color, from green to black, with vertical dark lines by each nostril. They are most frequently found around water, which is why they are sometimes known as water moccasins. They get the name cottonmouth from the bright white lining inside of their mouths, quite visible when they open it as a warning to predators. Cottonmouths are most abundant in the southeastern and southwestern United States and are known to hang around irrigation ditches, swamps, and other soggy areas. Intense pain occurs immediately with a cottonmouth bite and is accompanied by bleeding, swelling, and muscle weakness. Loss of muscle function and even paralysis can follow. Fortunately, the effects abate after treatment with an antidote (see “Fast Treatment” below).
- Copperheads’ bodies range from brown to bright orange and even peachy, but their heads are almost always the color of copper. Young ones typically have yellow tails. Most years, copperheads account for more bites of people than the other venomous species, but they also have the mildest venom, so those bites are almost never lethal. Pain and swelling start quickly around a copperhead bite and spread out to the limbs. Numbness, nausea, and a rapid pulse may follow. These snakes live in rocky areas near swamps, ponds, and streams, and they can be found from Florida to Massachusetts and as far west as Nebraska.
- Rattlesnakes have thick bodies with skin that has dark geometric patterns on a lighter background. They are the easiest snake to identify because they have a distinctive “rattle” at the end of their tails that they shake when threatened. Other types of snakes try to imitate the rattle when threatened by brushing their tails through dry leaves, but only rattlesnakes have visible rattles. There are 16 species of rattlesnakes in the United States, and at least one of them can be found in every state. Rattlesnake bites are painful and produce such symptoms as swelling of the whole body, labored breathing, blurred vision, a rapid pulse, and even paralysis.
- Coral snakes are the most colorful of the venomous snakes, with bands of red, yellow, white, and black wrapping around their bodies. The colors are the focus of a popular rhyme that’s used to distinguish them from similar-looking species, particularly the harmless king snake: “Red touching yellow will kill a fellow. Red touching black, you’re OK Jack!” Remembering this saying can be very helpful, even if deaths from coral snake bites are very rare. Coral snake bites may not cause immediate pain, but within an hour or two, they can result in slurred speech, drowsiness, weakness, difficulty swallowing, and convulsions. Coral snakes spend most of their time in burrows under rocks or in piles of rotting leaves. You’re most likely to encounter them in the southeastern and southwestern United States.
A few characteristics shared by venomous snakes can help you identify them quickly.
- Head shape: Most snakes have round, spoon-shaped heads that are no wider than the rest of their bodies. The dangerous species have venom sacks on their heads, giving them an easily recognizable triangular-shaped head that flares out from their torsos.
- Eye shape: The pupils of harmless snakes are round, like yours. All four types of venomous snakes have elliptical pupils, which appear like slits somewhat akin to those of cats. Those creepy-looking eyes are a good sign for you to stay away.
- Body type: The vast majority of snakes you’ll encounter are small, thin, and rounded like a pencil. You might not like to see them, but they don’t look very threatening. The venomous types are thicker and more muscular, and they grow to more than 2 feet long. The biggest, the eastern diamondback rattlesnake, can be up to 6 feet long and weigh up to 10 pounds.
- Heat pits: The venomous pit vipers (cottonmouths, copperheads, and rattlesnakes) each have small but visible “pits,” or depressions, on their heads between their nostrils and their eyes. They use these as heat sensors that help them find and track prey. Other types of snakes do not have these pits.
- Surface swimmers: Many snakes swim in freshwater lakes, ponds, and creeks, but cottonmouths are the only venomous type you’ll encounter in the water. When harmless snakes swim, you see only their heads as they move. But cottonmouths (remember, they’re also called water moccasins) are able to hold their whole bodies on the surface of the water as they swim.
How to Get Rid of Snakes
Snakes tend to be wary creatures that avoid exposure, though they do sometimes warm their cold-blooded bodies on rocks and other surfaces that heat up on sunny days. You are most likely to come across a snake in uncultivated areas of your yard and around shelters, such as piles of firewood, rocks, or brush. Most will move away as quickly as possible when they see you—even the venomous types prefer to escape rather than attack. Still, the safest choice is for you to get away from any snake rather than confront it. Follow the steps below to get rid of these slithering creatures.
- Remove food. The primary reason snakes make their home in your yard is because they’ve found easy access to prey. Venomous snakes and many other types feed on rodents, so the reptiles are actually more beneficial than harmful to have around. But if you’d still rather they leave, use traps and repellents to eliminate mice and other small mammals. Also, be sure to clean up birdseed, pet food, and other rodent attractions.
- Eliminate shelter. Snakes need undisturbed places to hide. Mow areas where grass and weeds grow tall and clean up piles of debris around your yard. Snakes also make use of burrows dug by other animals, so fill any you find with soil or stones.
- Use a repellent. Snakes (and many other animals) have a sensory device known as a Jacobson’s organ that detects pheromones and other subtle chemical cues from their environments. Snakes flick their tongues to pull in those cues for their Jacobson’s organ to interpret. Effective snake repellent products disrupt this function and drive off snakes in search of more comfortable conditions. Spread granular repellent around the area where you have seen snakes and they’ll soon be gone for good.
Antivenin drugs developed in the last few years have dramatically reduced (and almost eliminated) deaths from snakebites. If you or someone you are with is bitten by a venomous snake, you need to act fast. Here are the key steps recommended by the American Red Cross:
- Get medical help immediately.
- Wash the bite area thoroughly with clean water and soap.
- Immobilize the bitten area and keep it lower than the heart.
- If the bite is on the hand or arm, remove any rings, watches, or tight clothing.
When possible, identify or get a description of the snake that caused the bite: It can affect the choice of antidote.
- If a victim is unable to reach medical care within 30 minutes, wrap a bandage 2 to 4 inches above the bite to help slow the venom. Be sure the bandage is not so tight that it cuts off blood flow. A good rule of thumb: Leave the bandage loose enough that a finger can slip under it.
- Make any incisions on the wound with any instrument.
- Try to suck the venom from the wound with your mouth.
- Apply a tourniquet.
- Give the victim medication, such as painkillers, without a doctor’s specific direction.
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