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The Debunker: Can You Suck the Venom Out of a Snakebite?

by Ken Jennings

JIt's August, and that means one thing in warmer climates: people spend more time in nature, and nature, in turn, tries to bite them. August is mosquito season, it's snakebite season—hell, even Shark Week is in summer. But lots of the thing we know about summer's flesh-nibbling threats are dead wrong, and that's why we have Ken Jennings from Jeopardy! lurking here in the underbrush to tell us, at long last, the real truth about summer's bitey pests.

The Debunker: Can You Suck the Venom Out of a Snakebite?

It's an extremely well-worn bit of frontier and Boy Scout lore: in the event of a snakebite, the best first aid treatment—and often the only way to save the victim's life—is to apply a tourniquet, cut the wound open, and suck the venom out. This is such a familiar part of our cultural landscape that it's even a comedy premise, as in the old joke where a man is bit in an extremely sensitive spot and his friend is instructed, over the phone, to suck out the venom. "What did she say?" asks the nervous bite-ee. "She says you're going to die," responds his bro. 

The Debunker

But a 2002 study in the New England Journal of Medicine definitively debunked the old advice. Putting a tourniquet on a snakebit limb will cut off blood supply to the wound, possibly leading to nerve or blood vessel damage. And sucking, as an emergency treatment, frankly sucks. You're never going to get out more than a tiny percentage (on the other of one one-thousandth!) of the venom. In the meantime, you're possibly infecting the wound with your germy mouth. Even worse, the penknife nick that old trail hands like to make on snakebites in old Westerns can help the venom spread faster into the circulatory system.

The worst thing about cut-and-suck is that it might delay the victim seeking actual medical attention, which is really the only thing that saves lives from snakebites. In a survey of the medical literature, the Johns Hopkins doctors behind the 2002 study found that most bite victims have plenty of time to get to the hospital, where antivenin can be administered. Snakebite symptoms usually don't develop for 30 minutes to an hour, and as long as you get the victim to a doctor within the first two hours, their prognosis for survival is excellent. (About 0.2% of U.S. snakebites every year are fatal. Bee stings are much more dangerous.) In the meantime, keep the victim warm and their heart rate down. Wash the wound and lower it below the level of their heart. And next time, don't go messing around with snakes! About half of all snakebites result from dummies poking at or handling snakes, and a good percentage of those were drinking first. If you're not sucking down beers, you probably won't have to ask your buddies to suck down snake venom.

Quick Quiz: : Union Democrats who wanted to end the Civil War peacefully by negotiating with the Confederacy were known by the name of what poisonous snake?

Ken Jennings is the author of eleven books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at or on Twitter as @KenJennings.