Hesperian Health Guides

Stings and Bites

In this chapter:

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Do not cut open a bite or sting or try to suck out the poison. Also, tourniquets will not stop the spread of poisons from stings or bites, but will cause serious harm.

Most bites and stings are painful but not dangerous, and even deadly creatures do not usually inject enough venom to kill. Stay calm and watch the bitten part. If there are no problems or if problems improve after a few hours (depending on the creature) there is likely nothing to worry about. Because children are small, the venom can affect them and do more harm, so they may need more attention.

Snake bites

  1. Move away from the snake. Some snakes can still bite for a few minutes even after they are dead.
  2. Remove jewelry or clothes near the bite because the body
    may swell.
  3. Keep the bitten part of the body below the heart. Then keep that body part still by putting on a splint or sling. Using the muscles spreads the poison.
  4. Gently clean the wound. Do not rub it.
  5. For most snakes, or if you do not know what type it was, watch and wait for a few hours. If there is little or no swelling, pain, or redness, there is no problem. Danger signs include severe swelling or pain, drowsiness, droopy eyelids, dizziness, weakness, nausea, or bleeding from the mouth or nose.

Ask the person to swish water in the mouth and spit in a light‑colored bowl. If the spit is pink or visibly bloody, the gums are bleeding. This is a danger sign.

For these snakes, wrap the bitten area tightly:

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  • Coral snakes
  • Mambas
  • South American rattlesnakes
  • Sea snakes
  • Most cobras – the ones that cause damage throughout the whole body.
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Wrap tight—to stop the spread of poison, but not so tight that you cut off blood flow. Feel for a pulse under the wrapping on the top of the foot.
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Use a splint to keep the limb from moving.

Most vipers and some cobras harm the area near where they bite but do not cause problems throughout the rest of the body. For these snakes, do not wrap the bite.

For many poisonous snakes there is an antivenom that can help. If you can get to medical help, describe the snake as well as you can so the right antivenom is used. If possible, stock your medicine kit with snake antivenom for the snakes common in your area before emergencies happen.

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For spitting cobra venom in the eye: flush with a lot of water. If you have no water, milk or beer can be used. Do not use strong irritating chemicals.

Pythons and boas are not poisonous, but their bites can cause severe skin infections. Watch the wound and if there are signs of infection—increasing redness, heat, pain, swelling, bad smell or pus – treat it as an infected wound. Occasionally these snakes cause crush injuries by squeezing a person.

If the bite mark shows fangs, the snake is venomous. If there are no fang marks, it is less likely that the snake is poisonous, but it still could be.

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Spiders and scorpions

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Although they may hurt a lot, most spider bites and scorpion stings do not cause serious or lasting harm. Keep the bitten part still and use ice or cold water to relieve pain. Do not cut open the bite or use a tourniquet or bandage. Heat does not help, but keeping still does.

If you know the spider or scorpion is a deadly variety, or, if after the bite or sting there are signs of problems such as: stomachache, itching, sweating, and difficulty breathing, then get medical help. There may be an antivenom.

For Black Widow spider bites or scorpion stings, you can give diazepam on the way to prevent muscle spasms and calm the person.

Bees and wasps

After a sting, check if a stinger was left in the skin and remove it as soon as possible. The area around the sting may get red, swollen and painful. Putting a paste made with baking soda and water, or something cold on the stung area, will help with the swelling and pain.

Severe allergy to bee or wasp stings is rare, but can be deadly. See information about signs and treatment of severe allergy.


A bite from a tick can spread many dangerous infections. Check your body well after walking where ticks are common. To remove a tick with tweezers, grasp the tick as close as possible to where its mouth is stuck to the skin. Pull it out gently but firmly so that its head does not remain under the skin. Burn the removed tick with a match or kill it with alcohol, but try not to touch it.

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Fish and jellyfish

Get away from jellyfish and scrape off any tentacles. Use seawater to wash. For stinging fish, remove any spines with tweezers or pliers.

Immerse the limb in hot water for 20 minutes to relieve pain, but make sure it is not burning hot. This may work better for stinging fish than for jellies.

There are many local remedies but they do not work for all fish or jellyfish. For example, box jellyfish (sea wasp) stings are helped by washing with vinegar. But vinegar makes the stings of other jellyfish worse. Papaya or meat tenderizer is a well‑known home remedy for jellyfish stings but it does not seem to work for all jellyfish and sometimes makes the pain worse.

Allow the person to use and move their limbs—unlike with snake and spider bites, keeping still does not help. Get medical help if there are problems breathing or other signs get worse.

This page was updated:01 Feb 2021