First aid skills for treating bites from a poisonous spider or venomous snake is essential for a safe wilderness adventure. Being in the wilderness carries many inherent risks. One of those risks is getting bit by a venomous snake or spider. This article will discuss preventative measures you can use from being bitten and the field and treatments if you are bitten by a spider or snake. This topic hits home for me because I have experienced the bite of a venomous spider. It occurred while I was in the military. I was in upstate Florida going through US Army Ranger school, (Jungle phase), when it happened. We were conducting a military reconnaissance operation that put us in some very dense and heavy vegetation. During this operation I was bit on my left leg, shin area, by a Brown Recluse spider.
At first I felt a little pain, but I didn’t think much of it until later on that day when the area where I was bit began getting red and inflamed. Luckily that was the extent of my symptoms. I went to a medic where they informed me that I was by a Brown Recluse Spider. The medics drained the wound, treated it with an antibiotic ointment, and bandaged it up. They put me back in the field and monitored me for 24 hours.
The spider bite left a scar on my leg because the venom caused necrosis, (tissue death) around the bite. Spider bite symptoms will vary for individuals based on a person’s size, age, and current health conditions. Those individuals who experience more severe symptoms from a bite will need immediate care from a doctor, but very rarely will death occur . Deaths are very rare, and it is estimated that venomous spider bites in the US are less than 3 per year.
During that same operation another Army Ranger was bitten by a small Pigmy Rattlesnake. Luckily the snake’s venom was not injected into the Ranger, (dry bite), and he was fine. Snake fatalities are also very low in the United States and less than 5 people die a year. What makes these fatalities very low in the US is the network of medical facilities nearby stocked with the necessary antivenom.
So what happens when you are in a wilderness area miles away from medical care? The answer is that you become your own doctor until you can make it to a proper medical facility. Being prepared is your first step when an emergency arises in the wilderness. Below I will discuss treatment protocol for a snake or spider bite and how you can prevent from being bitten.
When you have been bitten by a spider determine if the spider is venomous or not. The (2) venomous spiders that you need to be concerned with in the US are the Black Widow Spider and the Brown Recluse Spider. If you cannot determine what kind of spider bit you remain calm and begin monitoring yourself. Understand that most individuals do not experience severe or life threatening injuries from a spider bite even if it was venomous. Individuals that are more susceptible to experience severe reactions are infants, very young children, older adults who may have certain medical problems.
TYPES OF VENOMOUS SPIDERS
Black Widow Spider: The Black Widow spider is black in color and its body consist of a large spherical globe with a red, yellow, or white hour glass marking on this globe. The Black Widow likes dry places such as attics and the corners of houses. It also can be found in wood piles. It injects a neurotoxin venom that may effect the nervous system of a bite victim causing respiratory distress.
Brown Recluse Spider: The Brown Recluse Spider is brown in color with a violin marking on its upper body. It can be found in wood piles, wood chips and wood shavings. It also likes staying in the barks of trees and downed trees. It injects a necrotic venom that breaks down and kills the surrounding tissue of its bite.
NOTE: The Black Widow spider is considered more venomous than the Brown Recluse spider.
SPIDER BITE SYMPTOMS:
Minor symptoms: Pain and redness will occur where you were bit. You may have swelling resulting in a red welt. A rash may develop and a blister may form. You should monitor yourself to make sure that the symptoms do not progress into more life threatening symptoms.
More severe life threatening symptoms: Yo may begin experiencing muscle pain, cramping, Abdominal pain, Weakness/nausea, and difficulty breathing. The more advanced symptoms mean you need to seek medical attention as soon as possible. The bite of a Black Widow spider can cause the more advanced symptoms
You may see 2 small fang marks from the spider or it my be a single bite which may look like a blister.
TREATMENT FOR SPIDER BITES:
- Remain calm and restrict your movements. Moving around will cause the toxins to enter the body’s circulatory and lymphatic system faster.
- Collect the spider that bit you or take a picture to identify it. Be careful to not get bit again.
- Clean the bite with soapy water.
- Apply antibiotic ointment
- Apply cool compress, (Use cool stream or river water) near you.
- Elevate the bite area if possible.
- Take over the counter meds (Pain Reliever, Tylenol, Ibuprofen, Antihistamine).
- Mark the site with a pen or marker. You may want to take a picture of the area as well. This will allow you to monitor the progression of the bite. Note the time and date of the bite along with the spider that bit you if you can identify it. This information can also be written on a notepad. This documentation will also let rescue personnel information to better treat you.
- Seek medical attention if the symptoms get worse
Monitoring yourself is critical especially if you are not sure of what type of spider bit you. When I was bit I didn’t see the spider that bit me. You should plan on getting medical help with the onset of the more advanced symptoms. If you are deep in a wilderness area with no communication device and your symptoms are advancing you will have no choice but to head back to the trailhead. Getting back on the trail will give you a better chance of someone seeing you. Always have an audible device like a whistle with you. If you can’t make it back use the audible device to signal for help. If you have a cell phone but you do not have cell phone coverage get to higher ground. I have found that getting to higher ground gives you a better chance to make a call. This is why having a communication device can save your life I always recommend having a PLB or satellite communicator with you for this reason.
***WHEN IN DOUBT SEEK PROFESSIONAL MEDICAL ATTENTION***
Below are the 4 types of venomous snakes you will see in the wilderness. As stated above there are less than 5 deaths per year from these venomous snakes. Some snakes may strike and not inject any venom. This is called a dry bite. Monitoring yourself and seeking medical attention is important since you may not experience the symptoms right away.
4 TYPES OF VENOMOUS SNAKES:
Rattlesnake (various species): A pit viper with retracting fangs. A pit viper is a snake that has heat sensing pits between its eyes. This means that they are able to pick up the body heat of its prey up to 3 to 5 feet. The Rattlesnake comes in various species that are located all over the United States in different climates. It may grow to lengths as great as 8 feet. It injects a hemotoxin venom which breaks down the blood or a neurotoxin venom that may effect the bite victims nervous system.
Water Moccasin (Cottonmouth): A pit viper with retracting fangs. The Water Moccasin injects a hemotoxin venom into the bite victim that breaks down the blood. The Water Moccasin also has a white inner mouth and it is also called the Cottonmouth. The Water Moccasin can be found in marshy areas, rivers, lakes, canals, streams or on dry land. They are dark in color with thick bodies. They may grow to lengths up to 4 feet.
Copperhead: A pit viper with retracting fangs. The Copperhead Snake injects a hemotoxin venom that breaks down the blood. The Copperhead has the least potent venom of the listed snakes in this article. Copperheads can be found in the forest and they like ledges and rocky areas. They survive well in suburban areas and they account for more bites in the United States than the other venomous snakes. They have large hour glass bands around their body.
Coral Snake: Not a pit viper but a species of elapid with small hollow fixed fangs that are not retractable. The Coral Snake injects a neurotoxin venom which may affect the bite victims nervous system. The Coral Snake will bite and inject its venom by chewing on its victim. The Coral Snake is the most toxic snake of the four listed in this article. The Coral Snake has bright colors, red, yellow and black. They are sometimes mis-identified as Scarlet King Snakes. A rhyme that I remember to identify a Coral snake is:
Red on Yellow Kills a Fellow (This is a Coral Snake).
Red on Black is your Best Friend Jack (This is not a Coral Snake).
SNAKE BITE SYMPTOMS:
Symptoms will vary from the above snake species. The below general symptoms that you need to watch out for. Certain species of snakes will provide more specific symptoms. The snakes venom, (Neurotoxic or Hemotoxic), will determine this. A Neurotoxic venom will effect the nervous system of a bite victim, (e.g. difficulty breathing, paralysis, etc.). A Hemotoxic venom will cause a breakdown of blood cells and necrosis of a tissues, (e.g. clotting of blood, death of skin tissue around the bite area, etc.)
NOTE: When you are bitten by a venomous snake no matter which species you need to get medical attention as soon as possible.
- Look for two fang marks at the bite location.
- You will experience Pain that may be (immediate and or severe, (neurotoxin or hemotoxin).
- The are will show redness and swelling around the bite, (neurotoxin or hemotoxin).
- You may experience difficulty breathing, (neurotoxin).
- You may begin feeling sick and nauseous, (neurotoxin).
- Sweating may occur, (neurotoxin).
- You may experience numbness of extremities, (neurotoxin or hemotoxin)
- You may experience blurred vision, (neurotoxin).
TREATMENT FOR SNAKE BITES:
- Remain calm and restrict your movements. Moving around will cause the toxins to enter the body’s circulatory and lymphatic system faster. Call for help via communication device.
- Take a photo of the snake for identification purposes. If you have to kill the snake be careful in doing so. A dead snake is still very dangerous. A dead snake’s nervous system is still active for a period of time after it is killed, up to an hour, which could cause a reflex action resulting in a bite. If you can positively identify the snake write down the species on a notepad or put the name of the species near your bite if possible. NOTE: if you can positively identify the snake as not poisonous then clean the site with soapy water and closely monitor yourself for further symptoms or complications. Non venomous snakes can also lead to further complications such as infections or tetanus so make sure the you clean and bandage the area where you were bit. If you cannot identify the snake then continue below
- Wash the site with soapy water.
- Keep the bite area below your heart.
- Do not cut or try to suck out the venom. This will introduce the venom into your saliva.
- Do not use a tourniquet.
- Remove rings, jewelry, or any constricting items around the bite area, because the affected area may swell causing these items to cut off circulation.
- The use of suction devices are controversial. Studies done with these devices show that it amounts to no real help when it comes to removing the venom from the bite area. These devices are still being sold and most experts agree that using these devices do no good.
- If you are in a remote area where rescue may be a few hours away then wrap the area with a constricting wrap or bandage. Make sure that you are not cutting off the circulation of the extremity you are wrapping. Start the wrap 2 to 3 inches above the bite wound.
- Do not take any caffeinated drinks or drinks with alcohol. This will increase your circulatory system. Water in small amounts is ok.
Snake bite deaths are rare but that is because medical attention is usually close for the victim. Being in the wilderness adds to the distance and time you will get medical attention. As stated above for a spider bite being prepared by having a communication device is critical. If you only have a cell phone then you may have to head to higher grounds to get a signal to call for help. If you have no communication device then your only choice is to head back to the trailhead for help. BE PREPARED AND HAVE A COMMUNICATION DEVICE.
***WHEN IN DOUBT SEEK PROFESSIONAL MEDICAL ATTENTION***
Pre-planning allows you to better handle emergencies when you encounter them in the wilderness. Part of your planning should include what types of venomous spiders and snakes live in the wilderness area that you plan on exploring. Below are steps you should implement to prevent bites.
- Have a communication device with you if an emergency arises where you need medical attention (cell phone, PLB, satellite phone, etc.).
- Have a well stocked First Aid Kit
- Wear the appropriate clothing if you are going to be in dense vegetation, (long pants, mid to hi top boots, long sleeve shirts, gloves, etc.).
- Consider wearing lightweight snake gaiters, (Shin protectors used to prevent snake bites), in high risk wilderness areas.
- Utilize an enclosed shelter such as a tent instead of sleeping in the open unprotected.
- Utilize insect repellants to deter spiders, (Deet, Eucalyptus, Citronella, Peppermint, Permethrin, etc.). treat your clothing with these repellants as well as your skin.
- When you are in dense vegetation use your hiking poles or a long stick to clear your path as you progress forward to ward off snakes.
- Avoid sitting or placing your basecamp around rocks or downed trees. These areas attract reptiles and insects.
- Visually inspect the ground area around you as you travel through a wilderness area.
Wilderness backpacking is a great way to explore and see scenic landscapes untouched by civilization. Wilderness backpacking can open you up to the danger of being bit. This article was written to talk about the more common venomous snakes and spiders you may encounter and to instruct you on how to treat yourself if bitten. Being caught without a plan or not knowing preventative techniques will increase your chances of being bit and possibly dying. Having the knowledge and tools, (i.e. communication device), is essential for a positive outcome if you are bitten by either a spider or snake in the wilderness.