‘Don’t Suck Out the Venom’ and More Guidance for Snake Bites

A copperhead at the Nature Museum in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

By Michael McElroy

August 12, 2022

There are lots of misconceptions about snakes, so as we enter a peak breeding season, the best defense against bites is being informed.

Snakes get a bad rap. They are the source of lots of fear and revulsion, only some of which is based in reality, and they are a natural part of a healthy ecosystem. They keep other pests at bay and generally do not bite unless threatened.

In fact, the vast majority of snake species in North Carolina are harmless to humans.

There are 37 snake species common in the state, and only five of them are venomous: copperhead, cottonmouth or water moccasin, Eastern diamondback rattlesnake, pigmy rattlesnake and the timber rattlesnake.

But the venomous ones are still dangerous, and copperheads, the most common venomous snake in North Carolina, are now entering breeding season. 

So the chances of encounters are increasing. 

As the News and Observer reported this week, a Wake County hospital reported a big jump in the number of snake-bite visits to the ER in July.

Nearly all were copperhead bites, Dr. Ben German, an emergency department physician at WakeMed, told the N&O. Still, the number of reported snake bites in the state overall is about the same as normal, the North Carolina Poison Control told the paper. 

The copperhead, a tan snake with distinctive reddish-brown, hourglass-shaped patterns, is found in every county. And while the symptoms of its bite can be more severe, it is not often as bad as the rattlesnake bites, poison control officials say. 

Still, call NC Poison Control right away at 1-800-222-1222 if you are bitten.

Here is what else you need to know, courtesy of the NC Poison Control.

Separate Truth and Fiction

There are lots of misconceptions about snakes, so being informed with facts instead of fear-based hearsay is often the best defense. For example, despite this reporter’s certainty to the contrary as few as eight minutes ago, baby copperheads are in fact NOT any more dangerous than adults. 

This long-told myth, experts say, has no basis. Baby copperheads are still dangerous; they are just not any more dangerous.

How Can You Tell If a Snake is Venomous?

Venomous snakes have

  • A triangular or diamond-shaped head
  • Long, movable fangs
  • Facial pits below the eyes

Non-venomous snakes have

  • A smooth, tapered head
  • Round pupils
  • No fangs, have small teeth
  • No facial pits

Another thing to note: Bites from venomous snakes leave puncture wounds.

What If a Venomous Snake Bites You?


  • Sit down and stay calm
  • Gently wash the area with warm, soapy water
  • Remove any jewelry or tight clothing near the bite site
  • Keep the bitten area still, if possible, and raise it to heart level
  • Call NC Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222.
  • Call 911 immediately if you experience chest pain, difficulty breathing, face swelling, or lose consciousness.


  • Cut the bitten area to try to drain the venom. (This can make the wound worse.)
  • Ice the area. (Same. Icing further damages the tissue.)
  • Make and apply a tourniquet or any tight bandage. (“It’s better for the venom to flow through the body than for it to stay in one area,” poison control says.)
  • Suck or use a suction device to remove the venom. (This could damage the nerves or blood vessels and increase the risk of infection.)
  • Attempt to catch or kill the snake. (It could just bite you again.)

How to Avoid Getting Bitten

  • Be mindful. Watch your step while outdoors, and don’t blindly thrust your hands under bushes or the like while hiking or gardening. 
  • Wear sturdy boots or shoes when you’re outside, and wear gloves when gardening.
  • Use a flashlight at night while outside. 
  • If you see a snake, back away slowly. Try not to jump or flinch. 
  • Don’t get complacent: A dead snake and even the head of a decapitated snake can still bite you out of reflex.
  • Do not try to move a snake yourself. Call a wildlife specialist. 


  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

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