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How Does Snake Venom Affect the Human Body?

A cobra, a type of venomous snake.
The Northern Pacific rattlesnake is venomous.
Snake venom can cause blood clotting that can attack the heart.
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  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 17 August 2014
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Snake venom affects the human body in a number of ways, depending on the snake, the type of venom, and how much venom is released. Different snakes produce different types of venom, and even within a snake species, the components of venom appear to vary, depending on geographic location. This is why it is important to be able to identify the snake species involved when one is bitten, so that the appropriate anti-venom can be administered.

There are basically three different kinds of snake venom. Hemotoxic venom is designed to assault the cardiovascular system. Cytotoxic venom targets specific sites or muscle groups, while neurotoxic venom goes after the brain and nervous system. Some snakes combine venom types for a more effective bite, while others only carry one specific form of venom. All venoms contain a complex cocktail of proteins and enzymes.

When someone is bitten by a snake with hemotoxic venom, the venom typically acts to lower blood pressure and encourage blood clotting. The venom may also attack the heart muscle with the goal of causing death. Cytotoxic venom is designed to cause tissue death, which is why some people have to receive amputations after being bitten, because the venom has eaten away the localized tissue. Many cytotoxic venoms can also spread through the body, increasing muscle permeability so that the venom can penetrate quickly.

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A neurotoxic venom works to disrupt the function of the brain and nervous system. Classically, such snake venom causes paralysis or lack of muscle control, but it can also disrupt the individual signals sent between neurons and muscles. Such venoms can also attack the body's supply of ATP, a nucleotide which is critical in energy transfer between cells.

Researchers once believed that many snake venoms contained digestive enzymes to make it easier to process prey. However, this does not appear to be the case; snakes with digestive enzymes in their venom don't digest prey any more quickly. More probably, such snake venom contributes to tissue death by literally eating the tissue away, accomplishing the snake's goal of incapacitating a victim long enough to start eating.

Some animals have natural immunities to snake venom, and immunities can also be induced through careful applications of processed venom; this technique is used to make the anti-venom used in snakebite treatments. Because there are around 300 venomous snakes in the world, many nations have anti-venom exchange programs, which ensure that hospitals and treatment centers can get needed anti-venom from other facilities in an emergency.

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anon354319
Post 37

Re: anon354098 (my own previous post): On the ninth day (today) the arm pain has almost disappeared. I had a doctor's appointment set up which I cancelled, but I figured this may be insightful information for others.

It should also be noted that I had been doing about 10 minutes of stretching that specific arm daily as part of a workout routine, and using the arm heavily during the workout otherwise. The frequent use may (or may not) have played a role in removing the pain. After each workout, the pain would be all but gone, however within 15 minutes or so it would be back.

anon354098
Post 36

I was bitten by a baby copperhead seven days ago. It barely got its fangs into me and only for a brief moment (technically all they need), before I dropped it (yes I was handling it). The fang only barely pierced my skin.

Fortunately, for whatever reason, I did not experience many symptoms. I was bitten on the left index finger and it became swollen within an hour, then very gradually the back of my left hand over the course of 24 hours. The other symptom -- the reason I decided to post here -- is that a nerve has been bothering me up the entirety of my left arm.

While I noticed it while in the ER, and it occurred about two hours after the bite, my median nerve or my radial nerve (unsure which) seems to be sensitive to touch in some parts, and if I stretch it out (as if I were doing a jumping jack) it is painful below my bicep and even under my arm.

Does anyone know if this is permanent, or if I can work on it?

anon346623
Post 35

On Mother's Day of 2013 I was bitten by a copperhead on my left index finger (believe it or not, this was unintentional. My family and I were in a field picking berries, and the dead leaves and grass hid it from sight). I was in ICU for two days and received 12 vials of Crofab. It's been about four months, and I barely have any feeling in the tip of my finger (I nearly lost it) and it's permanently deformed. I was in the hospital for seven days, and I couldn't use my left arm or hand for 2 1/2 months. I'm still suffering from tachycardia, but all things considered, I'm recovering quite nicely.

anon343502
Post 34

I was bitten by a poisonous snake over two years ago. I have had over eighteen surgeries so far. I was bitten on my ring finger. My most recent surgery was four weeks ago. I have chronic pain, severe tremors and spasms and cramps. I have atrophy as well. I have GI issues, migraines and chronic fatigue. I did not receive antivenin until the next day. It's been two years and I'm still having issues.

anon335633
Post 33

I was hit three times on my left foot in August 2011 by either a copperhead or a pigmy rattlesnake. I received seven vials of CroFab and recovered in several weeks, but I haven't been the same.

It's been nearly two years and certain long term problems have continued throughout my recovery. I am 47 and my testosterone levels are almost nonexistent; I am on hormone therapy for this now. My appetite is messed up and my vigor has never been the same.

anon305884
Post 30

My friend and roommate was bitten by a pygmy rattlesnake on her ankle almost two and a half years ago. Since she did not see the snake, it took some time for the ER to decide what kind of snake it was. A visiting doctor who was a herpetologist as a hobby gave the go ahead for treatment with antivenin. She was given six vials about seven hours after being bitten.

After being airlifted to a larger hospital, she was given another seven vials. She was in incredible, increasing pain. She was hospitalized for 10 days and then in a rehab for two months. She battled C-Diff, lack of appetite, constant pain and a painful mouth and throat infection. Since then, her immune system seems to have been altered. She is now allergic to both kinds of dust mites, cat dander, Russian Thistle, and all kinds of smoke.

She was recently bitten by a black widow spider while cleaning the garage and did not like the effects of the antibiotic they gave her. She had oral surgery two weeks after the spider bite, developed chicken pox during her recovery and has noticed that she is very slow in healing of bruises and cuts. We are looking for information on the long term effects of a rattlesnake bite and antivenin on the immune system.

anon305189
Post 29

I was bitten by a baby copperhead snake two and a half years ago. I was bitten on my right foot, near my big toe. Luckily, I still have my leg because of the swelling that this caused me. I was on crutches for several months, which has led to more medical issues and surgeries.

I was given 18 hours of antivenin while in the hospital for two weeks. I was in ICU for a few days because my respiratory system started to fail. As of today, I have not been able to go back to work. I have lots of medical issues now and no one knows what is going on, just that something is not right.

I am finally at Johns Hopkins Infectious Disease and Research Department and they are trying to help me. My body cannot recover from any surgeries, and I can't seem to absorb any swelling. I suffer from severe fatigue, weight issues, my appetite is all messed up, I have severe nerve damage on the whole right side of my body and I suffer with right lung pleurisy, asthma and bronchitis, and now have shingles at 35 years old.

Over the last year and a half, my platelets are always "high", which is new. I seem to not be able to recover from anything. I am ready to pull my hair out. Anyone else out there with similar issues?

anon293830
Post 28

I was bitten by a young cottonmouth five years ago and to date my foot that he bit still hurts. If someone were to grab my foot and squeeze it the pain is excruciating.

I was bitten on top of my foot around the ankle area, was in the ICU four days and had swelling all the way up to under my right arm. I guess I'll be using a walker in 10 years.

anon287171
Post 27

I was bitten 2009 by a rattlesnake and now can't use my right arm. The pain is bad.

anon282949
Post 26

I was bitten by a pygmy rattlesnake two years ago and had to have 28 vials of antivenin. I already have had fibromyalgia since 1999, and chronic fatigue, but the pain went from occasional to almost all the time and is still that way. I was in ICU for five days.

I live in Florida and never once thought about a rattlesnake being in our back yard. Has anyone else had any similar problems with the antivenin? I am only 95 pounds and doctors believe that having such a large quantity of it may have done something to my nervous system. They have also found that I have severe bone degeneration for someone my age.

Just wondering if anyone else has had this high of a quantity of the antivenin, and if you have had problems. Thanks so much and have a wonderful blessed day!

anon276997
Post 25

I was bitten by a Russell's Viper snake about 15 days back. It was a baby snake. I am fine and back to normal, but I want to know the long term effects of this snake bite on me.

anon276731
Post 24

I would also like to know what the long term effects are of a rattlesnake bite (I can't seem to find any info online).

I was bitten just two months ago and it seems as though the snake injected more of a neurotoxin vs hemotoxin (considering my blood tests came back relatively normal but my entire body/ face went numb and to this day I still have slight twitching/ weird sensations in my limbs).

I talked to a doc from poison control and he said that it was normal to still have these issues so soon after the event, but never said exactly how long it would last. Does anyone have any information on this/ are there any other medical problems that can be caused from the venom?

amypollick
Post 23

@coffman1112: It's a possibility. I'm not sure if copperhead or rattler venom is generally cardiotoxic, but it's certainly worth mentioning to your son's doctor that he was bitten at age 4 and never received antivenin.

The odd thing to me is that there is only one type of antivenin used to treat USA pit viper bites, and that is Crofab. It's used for everything but coral snakes -- rattlers, copperheads or cottonmouths. So I can't imagine why he wasn't given Crofab. The doctor must not have known much about snakebite, and apparently didn't contact the Poison Control Center, which could have told him there's only one antivenin, unless you're talking a coral snake bite.

Anyway, do make sure his doctor knows he had a snakebite when he was a little boy -- it could make a difference in the treatment protocols.

coffman1112
Post 22

My grandson was bitten by either a rattlesnake or a copper head when he was four. It was a baby snake and the kids were the only ones to see it. The doctors didn't give anti-venom because they didn't know what it was and gave him morphine and clear liquids. He is now nine and Monday, he has to go get an echocardiogram on his heart. Could the snake bite be the cause of heart problems?

anon261374
Post 18

I'm doing a report for my school about how lizard venom kills the person it bites, so how does gila monster venom kill the person? If you know the answer, please reply.

anon182838
Post 17

A snake bite is a horrible experience. I'm currently in charge of snake bite wards in a general hospital in Kaltungo, Nigeria. i see 2,000 patients annually, with many amputations and disabilities.

anon182510
Post 16

what will be the effects of snake bite on the fetus when it bites the antenatal mother?

anon162842
Post 15

what should I do first if I am bitten by a snake?

anon159922
Post 13

@anon70166: Is there any way that snake venom (cobra) could cause death after coming into contact with unbroken skin? In other words, can snake venom penetrate the skin of a human. Thank you. --HMS.

anon158167
Post 12

Saw scaled vipers, when they bite, often cause severe pain, irritation and swelling, which remains at least for a week's time. Post anti-venin treatment with medicinal herbs has saved many people from these symptoms. Slow recovery often affects the kidneys, raising the level of creatinine in blood.

anon114007
Post 11

I was bitten by a black mamba last friday on a farm in South Africa. I was riding a dirt bike and stopped on top of him. Luckily I was wearing my gear and so out of the approximately three times he struck he only managed to penetrate my skin with one tooth behind my knee, and as I jumped off the bike he got trapped and could not reach me for further strikes. It was about 2.5m long.

I was rushed to hospital immediately and given six vials of antivenin one hour and 45 minutes after the attack. i spent the past three days in I.C.U. I was released and given antibiotics for the week to come. Are there any long term effects that i need to watch out for?

anon100153
Post 10

Just so you know my level of medical knowledge I am a second year medical student, so I know most of the basics, and I know a bit more about this specific topic as I was bitten by a black mamba at age 11.

I survived, but the crazy thing was, I was bitten on the inside of my arm, almost exactly where you give blood actually, but my first symptoms were facial. My eyelids drooped and then became paralyzed, soon after, my whole face.

I don't remember much after that, just that it was horrible. I actually don't recall a great deal of my life for the few months after the bite though I had "recovered". I got something like 15 vials of anti-venom. To this day I have a slight tremble in my hands.

Oddly enough, my father had a local elder tell him after news of my survival that I would grow strong from the mamba. I don't believe that stuff, but I was a skinny kid who was a late bloomer. I am now 6ft 230 pounds at 10 percent body fat and I don't take steroids. LOL. Sorry this is long, but interesting background I hope.

My point is, I have had long term effects. And I know for a fact that any toxin would be cleared from your system by the liver. Even if deactivated by anti-venom, it still would be massive quantities of "stuff" the liver had to metabolize for excretion.

Four bites means a good chance it was a lot of venom, especially for a small kid with a small liver. It could be similar to a tylenol OD where a massive overload to the liver causes permanent damage. It is definitely at least a possibility.

Don't know how the pancreas would be affected. And in fairness, both liver and pancreas damage occur for many reasons.

But the main reason I believe it was the bite, at least for his liver, is that he was told he had a very limited life expectancy after the bite. That indicates they knew he had something badly damaged.

Glad he proved them wrong.

swan2875
Post 9

I got bit by some kind of snake approximately three weeks ago. We didn't know what kind it was because it was nearly dark. It was close to eight hours before i received any anti-venom but received 10 vials of it. The swelling has gone down dramatically but still discomfort and stiffness occurs. It is just mainly discoloration and red blotches beginning to appear under the inside of the knee. would this be typical and nothing to worry about?

anon86184
Post 8

Amazing, I've been living in the country now for five years, on five acres with a creek in Tennessee, but have never developed a fear for snakes. Even after seeing a neighbor getting bit by a copperhead on the ankle last year.

Well, this year it's my turn. While moving some plants near a brush pile I got hit on the index finger by a copperhead. About three or four hours later I got the anti venom at the ER in Oak Ridge Methodist Hospital which finally stopped the swelling, which had reached my shoulder.

I feel better today and the swelling is down, but I wonder what kind of tissue damage has been done.

Wow, now I'm a believer. Take precautions.

charley/73/tn

anon70166
Post 6

Yes you can get venom in a open cut and it can kill. as long as it enters the blood stream it does its work. the only safe way (if you do want to stay safe) to have venom in your body is if it is swallowed. this is because it is mostly proteins and it digests normally in your digestive system.

anon59473
Post 5

anon26820: You speak with a little knowledge. What is your background?

anon48680
Post 4

I was bitten by a very venomous sneak in South America at age 5. There was no hope,I was going to survive. Not sure i was going to make it that night, but I did. Fifty years later, I am here and more healthy than many. I was given such high dozes of penicillin that (on a medical/blood test 40 years later while in Austria I needed a job-related medical check. It was a mystery for European doctors to find penicillin traces in my body). I don't understand medicine, but I am healthy and I do hate snakes!

anon26820
Post 3

As a young man, I worked at the AMNH in NYC in the herp department. (I had a minor in herpetology, but didn't make a career out of it.) There was a museum legend that at some point someone was mounting a viper skull with jaws open and fangs extended, cut himself on one fang, and suffered some bite reaction. I emphasize that this was a legend. It seems unlikely, as the venom residue would have had to survive the long process of skull immersion in various cleaning solutions, etc.

Not impossible, perhaps, but highly improbable that any venom --probably in a crystalline form-- could remain. And if it did, its toxicity would be sharply lowered, I would think.

The tire transfer of venom seems slightly more possible, but not much. As to a child surviving multiple bites and extent of damage, one would need a lot more information to offer intelligent opinions.

The effect of venom on a child is massively different from that on an adult, Three bites is also unusual. But connecting any organ damage years later to venom might be difficult to prove irrefutably. One would need a complete medical history and background and then one might be able to infer something.

lioness137
Post 2

My mother tells a story she heard from her grandfather, about a man who died from getting venom in a open cut when he was changing a tire on a car that had run over a rattlesnake. Is this possible?

anon16427
Post 1

OK, so what are the residual effects of the rattlesnake bite? My husband was bitten at age 4 three times on his leg, and spent nine months in the hospital. He now has damage to his liver and pancreas, but wondered if it was due to this bite. They told him at the time he would not live to age 30, but is now 51. What long term effects does the toxin have on a person's organs?

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