When $%&! Goes Wrong: Venomous Bites and Stings

By Adam Berkelmans

Our adventures to procure wild food, whether through hunting, fishing, or foraging, can bring us into some extreme situations and sometimes, despite our best efforts, $%&! can go wrong. In this series, we’re going to talk about different adverse situations you may find yourself in, and the best ways to deal with them.

This month, we’re talking about Venomous Bites and Stings.

This will apply to anyone who spends time hunting, foraging, fishing, scouting, camping, or hiking in the backcountry as well as to those working at home or in the backyard. Most regions of North America will have some form of animal or insect that can leave a painful, and potentially dangerous, bite or sting. Here are some ways to avoid getting bitten or stung in the first place, as well as what to do if you do get bitten or stung.

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Venomous Snakes

Venomous snakes found in the United States and Canada include rattlesnakes, copperheads, cottonmouths/water moccasins, and coral snakes. Each year, about 8000 people in the USA are bitten by venomous snakes, and about 5 people a year die from the bites. Most deaths occur due to strong allergic reactions to the snake venom. Snake bites can also lead to lasting injuries, chronic pain, and amputations.

How to Avoid Getting Bitten

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommends:

-Do not touch or handle any snake [even dead ones].
-Stay away from tall grass and piles of leaves when possible.
-Avoid climbing on rocks or piles of wood where a snake may be hiding.
-Be aware that snakes tend to be most active at dawn and dusk and in warm weather.
-Wear boots and long pants when working outdoors. Even denim jeans may prevent some, although not all, bites by smaller snakes.
-Wear leather gloves when handling brush and debris.

Some other good preventative actions include:

-Use a walking stick to poke into likely snake habitat to scare them away.
-Shine a flashlight at the ground when walking at night.
-Listen for rattling in rattlesnake country and avoid those areas where you hear it.


Signs or symptoms of a snake bite may vary depending on the type of snake, but may include:

-Puncture marks at the wound
-Redness, swelling, bruising, bleeding, or blistering around the bite
-Severe pain and tenderness at the site of the bite
-Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
-Labored breathing (in extreme cases, breathing may stop altogether)
-Rapid heart rate, weak pulse, low blood pressure
-Disturbed vision
-Metallic, mint, or rubber taste in the mouth
-Increased salivation and sweating
-Numbness or tingling around face and/or limbs
-Muscle twitching

How to Treat a Snake Bite

-Seek medical attention as soon as possible (dial 911 or call local Emergency Medical Services [EMS]).
-Antivenom is the treatment for serious snake envenomation. The sooner antivenom can be started, the sooner irreversible damage from venom can be stopped.
-Driving oneself to the hospital is not advised because people with snakebites can become dizzy or pass out.
-Take a photograph of the snake from a safe distance if possible. Identifying the snake can help with treatment of the snakebite.
-Keep calm.

Apply first aid while waiting for EMS staff to get you to the hospital:

-Lay or sit down with the bite in a neutral position of comfort.
-Remove rings and watches before swelling starts.
-Wash the bite with soap and water.
-Cover the bite with a clean, dry dressing.
-Mark the leading edge of tenderness/swelling on the skin and write the time alongside it.

Do NOT do any of the following:

Do not pick up the snake or try to trap it. NEVER handle a venomous snake, not even a dead one or its decapitated head.
-Do not wait for symptoms to appear if bitten, get medical help right away.

-Do not apply a tourniquet.
Do not slash the wound with a knife or cut it in any way.
-Do not try to suck out the venom.
-Do not apply ice or immerse the wound in water.
-Do not drink alcohol as a painkiller.
-Do not take pain relievers (such as aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen).
-Do not apply electric shock or folk therapies.

Venomous Spiders

Venomous spiders found in the United States include the black widow and the brown recluse. Spiders are usually not aggressive and most bites occur because a spider is trapped or unintentionally contacted. Experts say that there are less than 3 fatalities due to spiders bites each year in America. Still, bites can be very painful and potentially dangerous. Many spiders will make their way into buildings like outhouses, sheds, and homes, but they can also be found outside in hollow trees, woodpiles, construction materials, and on the ground.

How to Avoid Getting Bitten

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommends:

-Inspect or shake out any clothing, shoes, towels, or equipment before use.
-Wear protective clothing such as a long-sleeved shirt and long pants, hat, gloves, and boots when handling stacked or undisturbed piles of materials.
-Minimize the empty spaces between stacked materials.
-Remove and reduce debris and rubble from around the outdoor work areas.
-Trim or eliminate tall grasses from around outdoor work areas.
-Store apparel and outdoor equipment in tightly closed plastic bags.
-Keep your tetanus boosters up-to-date (every 10 years). Spider bites can become infected with tetanus spores.


Symptoms associated with spider bites can vary from minor to severe. Although extremely rare, death can occur in the most severe cases. Possible symptoms resulting from a spider bite include the following:

-Itching or rash
-Pain radiating from the site of the bite
-Muscle pain or cramping
-Reddish to purplish color or blister
-Increased sweating
-Difficulty breathing
-Nausea and vomiting
-Anxiety or restlessness
-High blood pressure
-Swollen eyelids

How to Treat a Spider Bite

-Stay calm. Identify the type of spider if it is possible to do so safely. Identification will aid in medical treatment.
-Wash the bite area with soap and water.
-Apply a cloth dampened with cold water or filled with ice to the bite area to reduce swelling.
-Elevate bite area if possible.
-Do not attempt to remove venom.
-Immediately seek professional medical attention.

In the most serious cases, the doctor may inject you with antivenin. It’s a drug made from substances in the blood of horses. Antivenin neutralizes the black widow’s venom.


Venomous scorpions in the United States include the Arizona Bark Scorpion, the Striped Bark Scorpion, Northern Scorpion, Southern Unstriped Scorpion, Giant Whip Scorpion, Lesser Stripe Tail Scorpion, Stripe Tailed Scorpion, and the Giant Hairy Desert Scorpion. The only deadly scorpion is the Arizona Bark Scorpion; most others have a sting that can be compared to a wasp or hornet. They can be found in Arizona, California, New Mexico, Nevada, and Texas, with smaller populations in Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Utah (they’ve been spotted in other States as well, but are very rare). Scorpions usually hide during the day and are active at night. They may be hiding under rocks, wood, or anything else lying on the ground. Some species may also burrow into the ground. Most scorpions live in dry, desert areas. However, some species can be found in grasslands, forests, and inside caves.

How to Avoid Getting Stung

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommends:

-Wear long sleeves and pants.
-Wear leather gloves.
-Shake out clothing or shoes before putting them on.
-People with a history of severe allergic reactions to insect bites or stings should consider carrying an epinephrine auto injector (EpiPen) and should wear a medical identification bracelet or necklace stating their allergy.

*A portable black light may be used to survey for scorpions. Scorpions glow brightly under black light and are therefore easily spotted.


Symptoms of a scorpion sting may include:

-A stinging or burning sensation at the injection site (very little swelling or inflammation)
-Positive “tap test” (i.e., extreme pain when the sting site is tapped with a finger)
-Roving eyes
-Staggering gait
-Thick tongue sensation
-Slurred speech
-Muscle twitches
-Abdominal pain and cramps
-Respiratory depression

*These symptoms usually subside within 48 hours, although stings from a bark scorpion can be life-threatening.

How to Treat a Scorpion Sting

-Contact a qualified health care provider or poison control center for advice and medical instructions.
-Wash bitten area with soap and water.
-Ice may be applied directly to the sting site (never submerge the affected limb in ice water).
-Remain relaxed and calm.
-Do not take any sedatives.
-Capture the scorpion for identification if it is possible to do so safely.

Wasps, Bees, and Hornets

Bees, wasps, and hornets are most abundant in the warmer months. Nests and hives may be found in trees, under roof eaves, or on equipment such as ladders. They can be found across most of the United States and Canada.

How to Avoid Getting Stung

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommends:

-Wear light-colored, smooth-finished clothing.
-Avoid perfumed soaps, shampoos, and deodorants.
-Don’t wear cologne or perfume.
-Avoid bananas and banana-scented toiletries.
-Wear clean clothing and bathe daily. (Sweat may anger bees.)
-Wear clothing to cover as much of the body as possible.
-Avoid flowering plants when possible.
-Remain calm and still if a single stinging insect is flying around. (Swatting at an insect may cause it to sting.)
-If you are attacked by several stinging insects at once, run to get away from them. (Bees release a chemical when they sting, which may attract other bees.)
-Go indoors if possible.
-A shaded area is better than an open area to get away from the insects.
-If you are able to physically move out of the area, do not to attempt to jump into water. Some insects (particularly Africanized Honey Bees) are known to hover above the water, continuing to sting once you surface for air.
-If a bee comes inside your vehicle, stop the car slowly, and open all the windows.
-People with a history of severe allergic reactions to insect bites or stings should consider carrying an epinephrine auto injector (EpiPen) and should wear a medical identification bracelet or necklace stating their allergy.


-A sharp, burning pain at the site of the sting.
-Skin discoloration surrounding the sting.
-Swelling of the affected area.
-Itchy skin.

In less common cases, you could have a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) to a bee sting. Symptoms of an allergic reaction after a bee sting include:
-Difficulty breathing.
-Swelling of your tongue and throat.
-Lightheadedness or dizziness.
-Stomach cramps.
-A fast pulse.

How to Treat a Sting

-Have someone stay with the victim to be sure that they do not have an allergic reaction.
-Wash the site with soap and water.
-Remove the stinger using gauze wiped over the area or by scraping a fingernail over the area.
-Never squeeze the stinger or use tweezers.
-Apply ice to reduce swelling.
-Do not scratch the sting as this may increase swelling, itching, and risk of infection.

*If anaphylaxis occurs, use an EpiPen if available and find medical attention immediately.

Remember, most dangerous animals want nothing to do with you and only sting or bite as a protective measure. Leave animals alone, take precautions not to disturb them in hidden areas, and stay safe!

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