Don't be an ophidiophobe!

Ophidiophobia is the fear of snakes, and the reason I'm saying that you don't need to be afraid is that the vast majority of snakes here in New England are harmless.

In my live first aid courses, I spend more time talking about lightning safety than I do about snake safety because the chances of being bitten by a venomous snake are less than the chance of being struck by lightning. 

According to (by UMass Amherst College of Natural Sciences), "only one person has ever died of snakebite in Massachusetts, and that was more than 200 years ago."  Meanwhile, there have been 355 deaths in Massachusetts from lightning between 1959 and 1994 . In fact, someone was just struck about a week ago while walking her dog on the beach here in MA and hopefully she'll recover. 

Despite the fact that most snakes in New England are harmless, many people don't like them, even if that level of dislike doesn't rise to the irrational response in people with a true phobia. 

So let's get to some more data that might help put your mind at ease.

First, there are no known venomous snakes in Rhode Island or Maine.

In Massachusetts, and Connecticut there are only two venomous snakes, Timber Rattlesnakes and Copperheads,  and both Vermont and New Hampshire only have Timber Rattlesnakes. Sadly, these snakes are so few in number, they are listed as endangered. 

Both species are shy and tend to use hiding as their primary mechanism of defense. Biting is typically their last resort. The majority of the snakes I've encountered in New England--which to the best of my knowledge have all been non-venomous--have quickly slithered away, usually because I'm trying to take their picture. And no, I don't chase or harass them, I just try to help make them Instagram-famous.

So, with only two venomous snakes to think about in New England, we can safely assume that anything else that we may chance upon, from Milk Snakes to Black Racers will not pose a danger to life or limb.

But what if you are unlucky enough to stumble upon a rattlesnake or copperhead?

Not that it matters much if you're bitten, but both Timber Rattlesnakes and Copperheads are crotalinae, or "pit vipers," so named for heat sensing "pits" located between their eyes and their nostrils.  Their venom is a complicated concoction of proteins and metals and macromolecules that can lead to local and systemic effects. The snakes *can* bite without injecting venom, so called "dry bites," so it's possible to only have local pain and swelling, but you wouldn't want to wait around to see what happens. 

If venom gets into the tissue, it has enzymes that lead to local necrosis (tissue death), and increased cell membrane permeability to help spread the venom. From there, the venom can induce muscle spasms and/or paralysis, but the majority of the damage from pit viper venom is from increased bleeding. Blood vessels become "leaky" and the blood loses its ability to form clots so blood will seep out of the arteries and veins, robbing organs of oxygen and increasing pressure in the soft tissue. Blood pressure drops and this all makes it harder for organs to get oxygen, which, as you probably know, is important.

Copperheads are responsible for most of the snakebites called in to U.S. Poison Control Centers, but rattlesnake bites are usually more serious. Copperhead bites typically result in only local tissue effects without systemic findings; but, limb-threatening injuries can occur. Also, residual venom effects after copperhead envenomations reportedly persist between 7 and 14 days, but can last for months.

Emergency Medicine Practice, Emergency Department Management of North American Snake Envenomations, September, 2018

In the field, the most important thing to do is to stay calm, but work on getting to definitive help ASAP. 

Hospital treatment will include a broad range of options, including antivenom (antivenin), which can help halt the venom's toxic effects. 

Here are some things NOT to do:

  • Attempting to kill or capture the offending snake for identification
  • Attempting to transport the snake, even if dead
  • Applying a tourniquet proximal to the wound
  • Application of ice to the bite site
  • Attempting to suck the venom out of the bite wound either with a commercial device or by cutting the wound open
  • Treating the venom with electric shocks to the bite site

Snakes are amazing and beautiful creatures, and important in our local ecosystems. With some mutual respect, you'll be fine and they can keep the rodent population under control.

Please remember, the information presented here, including but not limited to, text, graphics, images and other material contained on this website are for informational purposes only. No material on this site is intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.