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How to Survive a Venomous Snake Bite

As one of his most highly acclaimed movies, every budding John Wayne fan has seen the 1969 film True Grit. The movie is exciting all the way through, but its action certainly begins to climax when Mattie (played by Kim Darby) falls in a pit and must fend off angry snakes. One of the snakes bites her hand, and a heroic Rooster Cogburn (played by John Wayne) swings into the pit to kill the snakes and save young Mattie.


Wayne’s tough character is unfazed by his companion’s venomous snake bite; he quickly cuts the wound open with his knife, sucks the venom out, and wraps the hand with chewed tobacco to draw any remaining toxins out of the body.


Though his actions were bold, did Wayne do the right thing in his attempt to save Mattie’s life? Old lore will tell you yes, but modern science says ‘not so much.’


What’s the proper technique to survive a venomous snake bite? Read on to find out.


The first step to surviving a snake bite is to not get bitten by a venomous snake in the first place. While this might seem like an obvious step, it’s also the most effective. This means it’s important to be logical when you’re in areas a snake might reside; don’t stick your body parts into holes, logs, or other places that you can’t fully see. Even if you’re a heavyset man, tread lightly when you walk over piles of leaves or uneven terrain to try not to disturb any snakes who might be lingering nearby. Remember, snakes don’t want to attack unless they feel so threatened they have to do so.


If you find yourself in an unfortunate situation like Mattie where a snake is simply unavoidable, it’s helpful to have at least some basic knowledge as to what type of snake you’re dealing with (so you know whether you should be really scared or only a little scared).


Some of the most common venomous snakes have particular signs that warn you of their extra danger. Such signs include: the sound of a rattle, a swimming snake, and stripes of red and yellow. Every type of rattle snake is venomous, so if you hear one, try to get away from the danger zone as quickly as possible. If you’re on the water and you see a swimming snake, assume it’s venomous and don’t go near it. If you encounter a snake with red and black stripes, this could be a coral snake. To quickly determine if it is (and thus, venomous), remember the rhyme “Red on black, friend of Jack. Red on yellow, kill a fellow.” Additionally, if you’re close enough to examine the shape of a snake’s head, a triangle-shaped head usually indicates a venomous snake. (Obviously, don’t purposefully get close enough to a snake’s head to see if it’s shaped like a triangle… Remember, the best practice is avoidance.)


If you get bitten despite your vigilance, first and foremost it’s imperative to remain calm. The more you panic, the more your heart rate will increase. And an increased heart rate will pump the venom through your body at a faster rate, making it more difficult for you to successfully get to help in time.


It’s also important to get away from the snake as quickly as possible. After all, getting bit twice will be significantly less fun than a single bite - and that’s saying something. A second bite will also help the venom spread faster, again reducing your chances of making it out alive.


If you are successfully out of reach of the snake or you’ve managed to kill it, try to either snap a photo or memorize its color and pattern. When you make it to a hospital, determining which type of snake bit you will make it easier for medical professionals to do their job - and keep you alive.


If you have the medical know-how, fashion a splint on either side of the bite wound. Be sure to keep the wound below your heart at all times; both of these tactics can help stem the blood flow and provide you with more time.


Although John Wayne looked cool when he helped Mattie, do NOT try to suck the venom out of a bite. This only adds venom into your mouth, and if swallowed, can not only burn your throat and esophagus but can aid the venom in spreading faster. Don’t cut the wound or wrap it in tobacco either; both of these tactics makes it easier for the wound to get infected and more difficult for a medical professional to do their job.


Above all, the most important thing is for you to get help. If that means you are unable to achieve some of the above suggestions (i.e., taking a photo of the snake, fashioning a splint), that’s okay. Additionally, don’t try to ‘man it out.’ If you were truly bit by a venomous snake, you could have both hemotoxins that kill blood tissue and neurotoxins that bring respiratory paralysis coursing through your body, making it all the more crucial that you go straight to a hospital.


If you’re lucky, you might just make it out with all of your limbs intact.




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Information pulled from:

Ellis, J. (2018). The official John Wayne handy book for men. New York, NY: Topix Media Lab.