Can Rattlesnakes Kill You With Their Venom?

Written by Brandi Allred
Published: March 9, 2022
Image Credit Joe McDonald/Shutterstock.com
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Think You Know Snakes?

Around half of all people around the world are afraid of snakes, the other half don’t mind touching them, and even keep them as pets. But, there’s one type of snake that can never be kept as a pet—the rattlesnake. Here, we’ll answer the question: can rattlesnakes kill you with their venom?

Rattlesnakes are the most dangerous snake in North America, both because of their deadly venom, and because of human attempts to handle them. But, that doesn’t mean that you need to be worried about sustaining a bite; you have a much greater chance of being struck by lightning than you do of being bitten by a rattlesnake.

Despite the very low probability of encountering, let alone being bitten by, a rattlesnake, people still fear them. This is due in large part to the influence of popular culture and myth, which have historically vilified and demonized both rattlesnakes and snakes of all types. But, in reality, rattlesnakes don’t want to hurt you—they only want to get away, so they can live to hunt rodents another day.

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Let’s take a look at how to recognize, and avoid rattlesnakes. Then, we’ll discuss the real dangers of a bite, and what you should do if bitten.

What Do Rattlesnakes Look Like? 

baby rattlesnake portrait
The two most distinctive features of rattlesnakes is their head shape and the rattle at the end of their tail.

Alexander Wong/Shutterstock.com

There are many snakes living in the Americas, some of them are venomous (like the rattlesnake and cottonmouth), and some are non-venomous (like the gopher snake and ratsnake). Rattlesnakes don’t look quite like any other snake in North America though. The most obvious difference between these members of the pit viper family and other snakes is their rattle.

Only rattlesnakes have rattles. Moreover, rattlesnakes possess uniquely shaped heads. The head of a rattlesnake is triangular, almost like a spade, with a wide base. Unlike the heads of other species of snake, rattlesnake heads are extremely wide where they meet the neck; other snakes have narrow heads that are the same width as the rest of their body.

Rattlesnakes grow to between two and eight feet long, and most commonly have diamond shaped markings running horizontally along their bodies. They’re yellow-brown in color, though some can be dark brown or tan.  

What Not to Do If You Find a Rattlesnake 

Rattlesnake Showing Rattle
Rattlesnakes have rattles that are made of dead tissue. The outer shell is keratine, the same substance as fingernails and rhino horns.

DMartin09/Shutterstock.com

Often, hikers hear rattlesnakes, but don’t see them. If this happens to you, freeze, identify the location of the rattling, and slowly move away. Don’t make any attempt to find the rattler, just move away. 

If you’re lucky enough to see a rattlesnake in the wild, the same rules apply. Do not approach the snake, and don’t make any attempts to handle it. If you have dogs or children with you, ensure that they do not approach the snake. Under no circumstances should you move closer for a picture, or try to capture the snake, even if a bite has occurred. Rattlesnakes can strike up to several feet from their own bodies, making them dangerous to approach.

How Dangerous is Rattlesnake Venom?

Can Rattlesnakes Kill You With Their Venom
Rattlesnakes have fangs that are retractable. About 60% to 80% of bites inject venom.

Joe McDonald/Shutterstock.com

Rattlesnakes have specially evolved salivary glands called venom glands located just below their eyes. They deliver venom through two large fangs at the front top corners of their mouths. Each fang is shaped like a recurved blade; they’re both hollow, like hypodermic needles, and retractable, like switchblade knives. 

When rattlesnakes strike—which can happen in under half a second—these fangs spring out, and stab the target. However, not every bite envenomates. Rattlers inject venom in only 60-80% of bites. Their venom is hemotoxic—it’s designed to kill small animals and begin the process of breaking down flesh. 

Rattlesnake venom is dangerous to humans, but only if medical care is not available. Because of widely available medical care in the United States, very few rattlesnake bites become life-threatening. Out of the 7,000-8,000 people bitten every year, less than ten die. With prompt medical intervention, rattlesnake bites are painful, but not fatal.

What to Do If Bitten By a Rattlesnake—3 Steps 

If you’re bitten by a rattlesnake, there are three simple steps you need to take to minimize the risks of complications. If your dog, or horse, sustains a rattlesnake bite, you should seek immediate veterinary help. Rattlesnake venom is particularly deadly to smaller dogs, but with prompt medical attention, most dogs survive bites. Some of the most common species of rattlesnake you might encounter include the timber, Mojave, and prairie rattlesnakes.

Can Rattlesnakes Swim - Venomous Snake Caution Sign
If bitten by a rattlesnake its important to seek medical attention.

Jeff W. Jarrett/Shutterstock.com

1. Remain Calm 

The first thing you need to do if you’ve been bitten by a rattlesnake is get away from the snake. Keep the bite below your heart, and try to remain calm. Remember—it may hurt, but there’s a good chance the rattlesnake did not inject venom. Do not attempt to suck the venom out, and don’t make any incisions over the wound. Instead, wash the bite with soap and water, or alcohol.

2. Move Away from the Rattlesnake

If you’ve been bitten, first remain calm, then get away from the snake. Do not make any attempt to capture the snake—you’re more likely to sustain additional bites if you continue to interact with the rattler. Medical professionals do not need to see the snake to treat you. If you’re not sure whether or not it was a rattlesnake, think about whether or not it had a rattle. Only rattlesnakes have rattles, though there are a few other species of venomous snake in North America.

Regardless of the type of snake that bit you, or whether or not you think venom may have been injected, your next step is to seek immediate medical attention. Rattlesnake venom is dangerous if left untreated, and even baby rattlesnakes can envenomate. 

3. Seek Medical Attention

Once you’ve moved away from the snake, seek immediate medical attention. Rattlesnake venom is most deadly when allowed time to act on your system, so the faster you get antivenom, the better your chances of a full recovery. Medical specialists can treat the bite and administer antivenom, but only if they have experience treating snakebites. Because of this, you should call ahead to the closest hospital and find out if they keep antivenom on hand. If they do not, seek out a hospital that does.

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About the Author

Brandi is a professional writer by day and a fiction writer by night. Her nonfiction work focuses on animals, nature, and conservation. She holds degrees in English and Anthropology, and spends her free time writing horror, scifi, and fantasy stories.

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