Reptiles are fascinating animals, and snakes are some of the best representatives of the group. Snakes are wildly different, even though they belong to the same overarching family. Some are constrictors, like the notorious boa or anaconda, while others are venomous, like cobra, taipan, and others.
And, finally, you have neither, as some smaller species are neither constrictors nor venomous but rely on killing and eating small prey that they can consume in one go. Today, we will discuss the venomous category, looking to shed light on the 3 types of snake venom that exist today.
Snake Venom Types
Most people only know of 2 primary venom types: neurotoxic and hemotoxic. But then you dive into the meat of it and discover that snakes possess a cocktail of different toxins, each with its different effects. In general, there are 3 types of snake venoms to discuss:
– Neurotoxic Venom
This is a fast-acting compound that targets the prey’s nervous system. The goal is to incapacitate the prey fast, rendering it defenseless within minutes or even seconds. The effectiveness of the venom depends on the snake delivering it because not all neurotoxic venoms are equally as potent.
It’s also worth mentioning that snakes can control the amount of venom they deliver, based on their age, whether they ate recently, and the prey itself. Many snakes will resort to dry bites, especially against humans. That is because snakes don’t consider humans as prey, so they only bite as a warning sign without injecting any venom. The snake takes time to replenish its venom reserves, during which it cannot hunt effectively.
The black mamba is particularly dangerous, as its neurotoxic venom can paralyze and kill a human in less than an hour. The neurotoxic venom attacks the central nervous system, leading to muscle paralysis, brain damage, respiratory problems, loss of consciousness, and death. The death is the result of muscle paralysis, rendering the victim unable to inflate its thorax to expand the lungs properly. The result is asphyxiation.
Neurotoxic venom doesn’t hurt, being the initial bite effect, but the aftermath can get scary fast. It can take as little as several minutes of the first effects in humans to become noticeable. Immediate medical treatment is necessary if you’re dealing with a powerful type of neurotoxic venom, as is the case with that of black mamba.
– Hemotoxic Venom
The hemotoxic venom is the next in line in terms of the threat level. This venom attacks the blood cells, muscle, and organ tissue, leading to localized necrosis and organ failure. Depending on the snake, hemotoxic venom can contain various enzymes and proteins, which results in different outcomes.
Some of the sub-compounds often present in the hemotoxic venom include:
- Myotoxins – Accelerate muscle tissue necrosis, leading to movement impairment and localized gangrene. Cobra venom contains primarily myotoxins, which is why cobra bites always result in tissue death at the bite site.
- Cardiotoxins – As the name suggests, these toxins attack the heart tissue, leading to heart failure.
- Nephrotoxins – are present in all types of snake venom and attack the kidneys and other organs.
In short, snake venom contains a variety of peptides, proteins, and enzymes, some of which are general-acting, while others are targeted, aiming for specific tissue types. This makes it impossible to produce an antidote for all venom types. Instead, the clinician needs to know what type of snake bit you to administer the proper antivenom.
– Cytotoxic Venom
Cytotoxins target living cells, which is obvious from the name itself (cyto = cell). All types of venom contain some form of cytotoxins, some of which are targeted, while others are generalized. Cardiotoxins are considered cytotoxic, for instance.
The most obvious signs of cytotoxic activity are localized blistering, fluid retention, swelling, and cell death (necrosis). Cytotoxic venom is specific to king cobras and vipers but can also be present in various concentrations in other species. It is more prevalent among hemotoxic snakes.
It’s important to note that all forms of venom snakes also contain proteolytic enzymes, which aid in cell breakdown. These enzymes pre-digest the cells so that the snake can digest the prey easier upon ingestion.
How do Snakes Use Their Venom?
Snakes have 2 ways of delivering their venom:
– Via Biting
The snake’s fangs are hypodermic (hollow on the inside) and are connected to the venom glands located at the base. When the snake bites, the head and jaw muscles press against the glands, causing the venom to rush inside the fangs and into the wound.
It’s interesting to note that snakes deliver different amounts of venom, depending on the prey and the snake’s age. Baby venomous snakes are far more dangerous because they don’t know how to control the amount of venom to deliver. So, they tend to inject pretty much the entire reserves. Their venom is also a lot more potent than that of adult snakes.
It’s nature’s way of providing baby snakes with extra protection against predators by allowing their bites to be far deadlier. The venom’s potency drops as the snake matures.
– Via Spitting
Some snake species, like cobras, can deliver their venom via spitting. They can project their venom up to 6 feet and showcase incredible accuracy. Studies have shown that cobras aim their venom specifically at the attacker’s eyes. That’s because the venom causes significant localized pain when encountering the eyes’ soft tissue.
Fortunately, you generally don’t need an antidote in such a scenario unless you have an open wound around your eyes or face that allows the venom to get into your bloodstream. Cobras use this defensive mechanism, alongside their distinct hissing and posturing, to intimidate potential attackers and push them back. If that doesn’t work, the biting will.
Symptoms of Snake Venom in Humans
The symptoms may vary slightly, depending on the species of snake and venom you’re dealing with. In general, expect the following signs:
- Redness, blistering, and bruising at the bite site (this is typically indicative of cytotoxic activity for hemotoxic venoms)
- Pain and localized tenderness
- Difficulty breathing
- Increased sweating and salivation
- Nausea and vomiting
- Muscle twitching, limb numbness, and localized or generalized paralysis
- Disturbed vision and dizziness
- A metallic or minty taste
- Tingling around the face and extremities
It’s important to note that immediate treatment is necessary to prevent more severe damage and prevent complications. Snake bites can be deadly, depending on the snake species, but even more, innocuous species can cause death. The bite itself can infect, leading to septicemia, or the victim may have an increased sensitivity to snake venom, which can lead to anaphylactic shock.
How do You Treat a Venomous Snake Bite?
The treatment consists of 2 phases:
If you realize you’ve been bitten, proceed to do the following:
- If you can, take a picture of the snake; identifying the snake is important to help the clinical team identify the venom used
- If the bite is on your hand, remove any rings or bracelets before the swelling begins
- If you have a marker nearby, mark the area around the bite mark or the edge of the swelling
- Write down the time of the biting incident
- Call for help and wait for professionals to arrive
- Remain calm, don’t panic, and don’t run; the running will set your blood in motion, which will increase the venom’s spread and action
- Drive yourself to the nearest help point – The venom can cause seizures, uncontrolled muscle spasms, paralysis, blurred vision, and even loss of consciousness. All of these effects are incompatible with driving.
- Don’t suck the venom or slash the wound – Don’t trust anything you see in the movies. Don’t try to suck, slash, or puncture the wound, since you will most likely be making things worse. Also, do not apply a tourniquet, even if it seems like common sense. The tourniquet will cut the blood flow to the affected region, actually speeding up necrosis in the area.
- Do not wait – Most people don’t realize that they’ve been bitten by a dangerous snake, so they wait for the symptoms to appear before asking for help. By that time, it may already be too late. Always call for help immediately, even if you’ve identified the snake and concluded that the bite isn’t too dangerous. Even a mild bite can lead to infection and even anaphylactic shock.
Also, don’t drink alcohol, take painkillers or apply ice to the biting area. The ice can reduce inflammation, which can confuse professionals regarding the progression of the venom.
The most reliable treatment method against snake venom is using an antidote.
How Fast Can Snake Venom Kill a Human?
This depends on several factors. These include the type of snake, the snake’s age, the quantity of venom delivered, your age and health, etc. How many times the snake will bite also matters drastically, and so is the biting site. The venom will most likely kill you faster if the bite is around the face or neck, close to the heart, compared to the foot.
Generally speaking, a king cobra can kill an adult human in approximately 30 minutes, while a black mamba can deliver death within a 20-minute window.
The black mamba can deliver up to 12 times the normal lethal dose with one bite, and they use to bite up to a dozen times during one attack. The taipan is among the deadliest venomous snakes in the world, with its venom being 12 times more potent than that of a king cobra.
Death can come in as little as 15 minutes for an adult human. Given that the taipan only lives in secluded areas, far from any trace of human civilization, a taipan bite is guaranteed to deliver a swift and certain death.
As we’ve already mentioned, it’s important to note that baby snakes are generally far deadlier than adults.
What is the Most Venomous Snake?
Several contenders are worth mentioning here, including:
- The king cobra – The longest venomous snake in the world. The neurotoxin cocktail results in 60% death rates among adult humans.
- The black mamba – This species draws its name from its black mouth, and it is known to be extremely aggressive and fast. It can bite multiple times and can deliver extreme amounts of highly potent venom.
- The inland taipan – This one is widely considered one of the most dangerous snakes with the most potent venom of them all.
If we were to choose a winner, the taipan would take the first place in terms of venom potency. But this species is responsible for a low death rate among humans, primarily because its natural habitat minimizes the encounters. Other, more widespread snakes are responsible for more deaths by virtue of volume incidents than venom potency.
Such is the case of the saw-scaled viper, whose bites only kill in 10% of the cases. But there are so many viper-human encounters that the actual death toll linked to this species outweighs that of all the other venomous snakes combined.
Venomous snakes are as scary as they are wonderful. It’s important to realize that venomous snakes are not monsters. They don’t hunt humans and don’t bite for fun. Their venom takes time to replenish and is an essential hunting tool. A venomous snake without venom has no means of hunting and will likely starve.
They only bite humans when cornered or scared but will often showcase multiple warning signs to inform the human of their presence. Avoid them, and they will avoid you.