When to See a Doctor for a Snake or Lizard Bite

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Snake in desert

Whether you admire snakes and lizards or would rather avoid them altogether, everyone can agree they don’t want to experience a bite. There are thousands of snake and lizard species around the world and about 50 different types in the United States. Of these, most snakes are not harmful if they bite, but some are, like rattlesnakes, copperheads, water moccasins, and coral snakes. The only two poisonous lizards in North America are the Gila monster and the beaded lizard. They live in the desert regions of Mexico. The Gila monster can also be found in the southwestern desert areas in the United States.

The good news is death from a snake bite or lizard bite is rare. Each year between 7,000 and 8,000 people in the U.S. are bitten by a venomous snake, and about five die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Data isn’t available for the number of lizard bites, but the number is likely to be very low. Most lizard bites are probably from captive animals.

Knowing when to see a doctor and how to give first aid after a lizard or snake bite can help reduce the risk of tissue damage from the venom, as well as possible amputation or death. Learn more about snake bite and lizard bite treatment and what to do if you or someone you’re with is bitten.

When You Are First Bitten

Most snake bites on humans are on the hand, arm, foot or leg. Once you’re safely away from the snake, try to identify what bit you. Bites from a venomous snake usually cause severe pain within a half hour of the bite, if not sooner. However, any snake bite can be serious, even from harmless species like garden snakes. Any bite leaves a puncture wound that can become infected.

If you are unsure of what type of snake bit you, treat it like a poisonous bite until you learn otherwise. If you recognize the snake as being venomous or you start to show immediate signs of poisoning, call 911. Try to move as little as possible so the spread of venom may slow. If possible, take a photo of the bite to show emergency personnel. This may help them determine the severity of the bite and how to administer treatment.

Signs and symptoms of a venomous snake bite include:

  • Increased thirst or a strange taste in your mouth, often described as metallic or rubbery
  • Severe pain, blistering, redness or bruising around the bite

Symptoms of a poisonous lizard bite are similar to that of venomous snake bite. However, they are usually less severe. Lizard bites, including poisonous ones, are rarely fatal.

Unlike snakes, lizards do not have fangs that inject venom. Instead, they latch on firmly and chew the venom into the skin with teeth. This can make it very difficult to dislodge the lizard. Tactics for getting the lizard off the skin include forcing its jaws open with pliers, lighting a flame under its chin, and entirely submerging the lizard under water if possible. Once you detach the lizard, seek immediate medical care. Even nonvenomous lizard bites require medical attention.

What NOT to Do After a Snake or Lizard Bite

There are many myths about what to do if you have a snake or lizard bite. Some may actually be more harmful than helpful. Unless emergency personnel specifically instruct you to do so, it’s important not to do any of the following:

  • DO NOT: Apply a tourniquet. This is something you may see on TV or in a movie. But restricting blood flow keeps venom concentrated near the wound, which could increase the likelihood of tissue damage.
  • DO NOT: Apply ice. Although we are generally told to apply ice to swelling, do not apply ice to a snake bite. As with a tourniquet, this restricts blood flow to the area and keeps the venom concentrated.
  • DO NOT: Drink alcohol or caffeine, or use tobacco, as these increase heart rate and blood pressure which can spread the venom.
  • DO NOT: Take any medications, even over-the-counter, for pain.
  • DO NOT: Try to remove the venom by sucking it out of the wound or making a cut or X over the bite. Venom is often not at the surface of the skin, and cutting the skin increases the risk of infection.

Experts also say not to try to catch the snake or lizard. Try to remember what it looked like, or take a photo if you can do so safely. But do not pick it up, as snakes and lizards will bite when they feel threatened.

First Aid

Being bitten by a snake or lizard can be scary, but it’s important not to panic. By knowing about first aid ahead of time, you can take quick action in the event of a snake bite and minimize the risk of tissue damage or death. Snake bite first aid and lizard bite first aid are very similar.

Venomous Bites

After calling 911 for a bite you know or suspect was from a venomous snake or lizard, or you’re unsure, take these steps to administer first aid until paramedics arrive:

  • If the bite is on the hand or arm, remove any rings, bracelets or watches. If the arm or hand swells up, jewelry may become tight and cut off circulation.
  • Lie down if possible. If you or the victim can’t lie down, sit still, avoiding movement. If you must move, see if someone can carry you to limit your movements as much as possible.
  • Keep the affected limb below the level of the heart.
  • Have someone wash the bite area with soap and clean water and pat it dry. Do not rub it.
  • Using a pen or marker, draw around the bite where the redness or swelling stops. This is to help the emergency staff gauge how quickly the swelling or redness progresses.

Non-Venomous Bites

If you’re confident the snake or lizard was not venomous, you don’t need to take the precautions you would for a venomous bite. However, you still need to wash the wound carefully and monitor for signs of infection. You may also consider applying some antibiotic ointment.

Signs of an infection include:

  • Increasing pain
  • Pus or discharge from the bite
  • Redness, swelling and warmth around the bite

Any signs of infection or worsening pain or discomfort mean you should see your doctor or go to an urgent care clinic as soon as possible. Tetanus is another concern, even for non-venomous bites. If you do not have an up-to-date tetanus vaccination, see your doctor within a day of the bite.

Care After a Venomous Bite

Once you arrive in the emergency room, doctors and nurses will watch you closely, monitoring your blood pressure and pulse. If the snake can be identified, you will receive the correct anti-venom to counter the toxins in your body. Some anti-venoms are particular to one type of snake, while others cover several types.

Once the anti-venom is given, nurses will watch you closely for at least 24 hours to ensure the medication has worked and you don’t have an allergic reaction.

There are no anti-venoms for lizards. However, doctors still need to evaluate bites, even from nonvenomous lizards. Because of the way lizards chew when they bite, it’s possible for teeth to break off and remain in the skin. Doctors will need to probe the wound to locate any broken teeth. Deep wounds may require X-rays to look for foreign material and possibly fractured bones. Lizard bite treatment usually doesn’t require antibiotics unless signs of an infection develop.

If the bite caused tissue damage, you may have follow-up appointments with specialists to monitor your progress and see if you need any further treatment.

The best snake and lizard bite treatment is preventing bites altogether. Take safety steps when outdoors, such as avoiding areas that may contain snakes or lizards, poking a large stick ahead of you when in tall grass or weeds, and wearing long pants and thick boots. If you do get bitten, stay calm. Keep in mind most bites are non-lethal and focus on getting the medical attention you need.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Sep 11
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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