How Many People Do Cottonmouths (Water Moccasins) Bite Per Year?

Written by Kristen Holder
Updated: March 11, 2022
Image Credit KF2017/Shutterstock.com
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Think You Know Snakes?

There are over 3500 snakes in the world and some of them are venomous. That’s why we fear them, and why images of snakes are synonymous with the sinister. We demonize them without understanding much about the details that make them scary in the first place.

Cottonmouths are one of the most venomous snakes in the United States. They get their name from their white mouths that are the same color as cotton.

They open their mouth widely when in a defensive stance, and the color of their mouths is striking against their body color. This contrast is meant to ward off predators by highlighting exactly where the danger lies: their fangs.

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How many people do cottonmouths bite per year? Let’s take a closer look at that and some other attributes of the cottonmouth (also known as a water moccasin).

How Many People Are Bitten by Cottonmouths (Water Moccasins) Every Year?

Juvenile Cottonmouth Snake swimming in a pond. They have even stronger contrasting bands of colors.
Juvenile Cottonmouth Snake swimming in a pond. They have even stronger contrasting bands of colors.

Mark_Kostich/Shutterstock.com

7,000 to 8,000 people suffer a venomous snakebite per year, but only a few die. Cottonmouths are responsible for less than 1% of those few deaths.

Almost half of all snake bites in the United States are on lower extremities, and about 25% of them were shoeless when the bite occurred. There were 255 cottonmouth envenomation incidents reported in 2017, with 242 of those being treated by healthcare professionals. 122 of those patients had moderate symptoms while 10 suffered severe symptoms. Nobody died.

These snakes can bite underwater, but they only bite when provoked. Most bites are a result of someone inadvertently stepping on them. Most snake bites in the United States don’t result in death. In fact, about 20% of all venomous snake bites in the USA do not result in envenomation. Thousands are bitten every year and only a few die.

How Dangerous Is a Cottonmouth Bite?

Cottonmouth bites are very dangerous. Their venom causes immense swelling and pain while causing tissue damage. This can cause loss of arms and legs and even death. A cottonmouth bite often comes with extra infections since the snake eats carrion and accessed your bloodstream with its fangs.

Symptoms include numbness, trouble breathing, vision impairment, increased heart rate, nausea, and pain. Since the venom is a hemotoxin, it stops blood from coagulating by breaking down red blood cells so that the circulatory system begins to bleed out.

A cottonmouth’s bite usually only comes with a partial dose of venom. Almost all cottonmouth bites, even without antivenom, only need wound care. There is no known surgical intervention needed for the localized bite area. Even though the bite probably won’t be fatal if left unattended, it’s best to seek medical treatment immediately if you’ve been bitten.

You can expect to be put under observation for 8 hours when you seek medical treatment. If you do not develop symptoms, it will be assumed that a dry bite occurred, and you’ll be discharged. If you do develop symptoms, and the symptoms progress, you’ll be given an antivenom.

Are Cottonmouths Poisonous?

Cottonmouths are not poisonous, but rather venomous. When something is poisonous, it can’t be eaten or touched. When something is venomous, it injects toxins when attacked through its fangs. You can still touch, and perhaps eat, something that’s venomous if proper precautions are heeded.

A cottonmouth’s fangs are hollow and twice the size of the rest of its teeth. When they aren’t being used, they are tucked against the roof of the mouth so they’re out of the way. Sometimes cottonmouths shed their fangs and grow new ones.

How Does Antivenom Work?

There is an antivenom for cottonmouth bites. There are two kinds of cottonmouth antivenom in the United States. One is derived from sheep while the other is derived from horses. Cell parts from either animal are exposed to venom and released into the human body to boost the human immune response to the envenomation.

Antivenom for cottonmouth bites can’t reverse tissue damage, but it can stop it. Once antivenom administration begins, how you respond to treatment will determine how long it will go on.

How Does a Cottonmouth’s Venom Work on Prey?

Cottonmouth Snake
Cottonmouth snakes unhinge their jaws to swallow big prey whole.

Jay Ondreicka/Shutterstock.com

A cottonmouth will identify its prey and bite it with its sharp fangs. It then coils around the stricken animal until it dies. It then swallows its prey whole, and if it needs to, it will unhinge its jaws to do so.

When it strikes, it uses that momentum to get its body coiled around the victim if its body temperature is low. Whenever the prey exhales, the snake’s grip gets tighter until it’s impossible to breathe.

Somehow a cottonmouth can tell if it’s hot or cold outside and will adjust the amount of venom it delivers in a bite based on temperature factors. That’s because snakes are cold-blooded, and their entire body is affected by outside temperatures. If its body temperature is high, it will bite and follow its prey until it succumbs to the venom. If it’s low, it will coil around its prey.

What Does a Cottonmouth Eat?

A cottonmouth eats small mammals, ducks, eels, catfish, other fish, turtles, and rodents. It will also eat turtles, frogs, birds, eggs, and other snakes if the opportunity is right. Cottonmouth babies are born independent and ready to eat insects and other small prey.

Cottonmouths are known to scavenge even if it means eating carrion or roadkill. Water moccasins have been seen consuming chunks of fat from roadkill pigs in the wild. They also don’t like to hunt while they swim, so they’ll try to pin a fish near the bank or against something so they can kill it.

When cottonmouths curl up for the winter in dens they’ve created, often choosing to hang out with other venomous snakes for warmth, they don’t eat. Since none of the snakes conserving heat together are competing for food because their metabolisms are slowed, there’s no fighting.

Can Humans Eat Cottonmouths?

Yes, you can technically eat a cottonmouth. When killing the snake, the venom sacs behind the head cannot be damaged as that will poison all the meat. Because of this, most people forego dining on this snake. However, enough people eat it that recipes do exist.

If you do decide to chow down on some safe cottonmouth meat, be aware that it isn’t as tasty as rattlesnake meat. Cottonmouth meat is tasteless in comparison. Cottonmouths also emit a musk, and they stink the entire time they are being cleaned. Most people find this experience too disgusting to repeat.

What Animals Eat Cottonmouths?

Owls, eagles, hawks, opossum, largemouth bass, alligators, raccoons, and snapping turtles are animals that eat cottonmouths. A cottonmouth will defend itself when approached, so each animal has a different tactic in taking down these poisonous snakes. For example, the opossum is immune to the cottonmouth’s venom while eagles use surprise, quick reflexes, and sharp talons to kill the snake.

Why Is a Cottonmouth a Pit Viper?

Pit vipers, like the cottonmouth, have a pit between their eyes and nostrils that senses heat and infrared disturbances. These pits contain special glands on their triangular heads. This helps them sense prey even in the dark. Other pit vipers in the United States include rattlesnakes.

Pit vipers are considered the most evolved snakes because of their pit sensory organ. They also have large jowls because of their venom glands.

How Many Species of Cottonmouths Live in the USA?

There are two species of cottonmouth in the United States: the northern cottonmouth and the Florida cottonmouth. They’re hard to identify because there’s such a variance of coloring between these snakes, and they’re also able to interbreed with each other.

Before DNA analysis in 2015 demanded a restructuring of our perception of cottonmouths, there were three different kinds: the northern, the western, and the eastern. Some of the older scientific literature on cottonmouths may use these names.

What is a Cottonmouth’s Habitat?

Where Do Snakes Live
Cottonmouths like to spend their time in the water and on land. They ideally need both.

Seth LaGrange/Shutterstock.com

Cottonmouths live in and around water like bays, lakes, floodplains, and wetlands. Northern cottonmouths are found throughout the southeastern United States while Florida is home to the Florida cottonmouth.

The US only hosts one venomous snake that spends time in the water, and it’s the cottonmouth. It’s comfortable both on land and in the water, so both need to be in their ideal habitat.

Depending on if appropriate males and conditions are around, a female cottonmouth can undergo asexual reproduction, creating embryos without any male genetic material.

Can You Keep a Cottonmouth as a Pet?

Technically cottonmouths can do well in captivity, but it’s not recommended to keep these snakes as pets. That’s because they’re so dangerous. A cottonmouth kept as a pet in a constant temperature-regulated environment may not need to hibernate during the winter.

Because they eat carrion in the wild, pet cottonmouths accept dead mice and other dead critters as food. It doesn’t need to be alive for them to consume it. Cottonmouths are quite a commitment as they can live up to a quarter-century when properly tended in captivity.

Cottonmouths being kept as pets should also be offered a variety of foods. Such foods include minnows, trout, mice, and rats.

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About the Author

I'm a freelance ghostwriter that specializes in SEO content. I have always loved writing, and when COVID happened, I went at my passion full tilt. I'm currently in Spokane, WA by way of Phoenix, AZ, though I'm originally from Sacramento, CA. Freelancing allows me the freedom to move around as I please.