Wilderness Treatment for Snake, Spider, and Scorpion Stings/Bites (North America)

While it is great to enjoy the great outdoors, we must be conscious of our crawling, slithering neighbors as well. Many people are afraid of snakes, spiders, and scorpions, but most of this fear derives from the fact that we know so little about them. To this end, we’ve created this guide so that you can be well-prepared for an unpleasant encounter with one of these animals.  

While snake, spider, and scorpion bites all have different treatments, these three things apply to all of them:

  1. Document when you got bit. Record times of any new symptoms and take pictures. This helps any medical professional know what animal bit you as well as the severity of the bite. 
  2. Don’t follow any unproven folk treatments (such as sucking venom out with your mouth, peeing on the bite, etc.)
  3. Evacuate immediately. Even if you don’t show symptoms yet, it is important to be close to hospital access in case this changes quickly. 


Symptoms and Treatment For Snake Bites

Pit Viper Snakes

Pit Vipers are a type of venomous snake classified by the presence of a heat-sensing pit organ. Common types of pit vipers include rattlesnakes, water moccasins, and copperheads.

rattlesnake identification photo
Rattlesnakes can be identified with their triangular head, thick body and rattle on the back of tail

Symptoms of a Pit Viper Bite

  • Fang marks
  • Bruising and blister formation
  • Late necrosis, which is the death of body tissue. 
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Sweating, chills, and weakness
  • Nausea, and sometimes vomiting
  • Pain and swelling

Elapid Snakes

Another class of venomous snakes worth discussing are elapids. While pit vipers have retractable fangs, elapid snakes have permanently-secured fangs. Common elapids include coral snakes and cobras.

venomous coral snake identification photo
Here is an easy rhyme to identify dangerous coral snakes. Red touches yellow, kill a fellow. Red touches black, friend of Jack!

Symptoms of an Elapid Bite

  • Localized swelling
  • Respiratory difficulties
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness

How to Treat Pit Viper and Elapid Snake Bites

  1. Do NOT attempt to kill the snake. Just be sure that the snake is gone and will not bite again. The snake was only trying to defend itself. It will only hurt the victim when seeking revenge. 
  2. Wash the wound to prevent infection. 
  3. Immobilize the limb with a splint: Avoid compression/constriction of the area for pit vipers.
    1. For elapid bites, wrap a wide elastic bandage (pressure immobilization bandage) around the limb. 
  4. Transport victim out of the wilderness and to where antivenom can be administered. 

Other Considerations with Snake Bites

  1. Just because there is a bite, does not mean venom was injected. Immediate signs of a venomous snake bite include two puncture wounds (only venomous snakes have fangs), swelling, and worsening symptoms.
  2. Avoid unproven/discredited methods such as sucking out the venom.
  3. Consider pain medications. 

Symptoms and Treatment For Scorpion Bites

scorpion identification photo
Scorpions are light brown with a long and slender body. Not every scorpion sting is dangerous. If in scorpion country, do research on which scorpions are dangerous in the area.

Symptoms of a Scorpion Sting

  1. Immediate pain
  2. Swelling and redness
  3. Numbness around sting site
  4. Vomiting and nausea
  5. Slurred speech
  6. Difficulty swallowing
  7. Seizures and blurred vision
  8. Involvement of the respiratory and cardiovascular system

How to Treat a Scorpion Sting

  1. Clean wound
  2. Cool with water or ice
  3. Evacuate and go to hospital

Symptoms and Treatment for Spider Bites

Black Widow Spider

black widow identification photo
Fortunately, Black Widows are very recognizable due to this red mark on their body.

Symptoms of a Black Widow Bite

  • Red and itchy
  • Heavy sweating
  • Muscular cramping 
  • Pain and anxiety for 1 hour after bite
  • Numbness in feet
  • Nausea, headache, and vomiting

How to Treat a Black Widow Bite

  1. Clean and dress wound
  2. Consider pain medication
  3. Go to hospital

Brown Recluse Spiders

brown recluse identification photo
Brown recluses are difficult to identify visually. If you are unsure about the spider, keep an eye on the symptoms of the bite to determine if it is from a recluse or not 

Symptoms of a Brown Recluse Bite

  • Initially painless
  • Blisters (necrosis)appear after 1 hour of bite
  • Chills and fever

How to Treat a Brown Recluse Bite

  1. Clean and dress wound
  2. Monitor bite for necrosis (death of body tissue)
  3. Go to hospital

Leave No Trace

It is important to know that these animals have developed venom in order to protect their small vulnerable existence and not for sinister intent. The majority of snake bites are on the hand, which means that the majority of snake bite victims are trying to pick up a snake. Do not go chasing after these animals, harass these animals, or try to kill them. The natural world is beautiful due to its diversity, and what might seem insignificant and creepy to us humans, still holds value in the ecosystem. As always remember to leave no trace. 

As the poet Ruby Fransico says, 

“If I am ever caught in the wrong place 

at the wrong time, 

just being alive and not bothering anyone, 

I hope I am greeted 

with the same kind 

of mercy.” 

The better prepared we are for nature, the better we take care of nature. This knowledge is from my training as a Wilderness First Responder through NOLS. While I am not a medical doctor, these are important guidelines to remember when in the wilderness.

The Out sider

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