DISCLAIMER: Snake venom is serious business. We're not professional toxicologists, doctors, or herpetologists. At BirrenCo, we're hardcore trekkers and outdoor enthusiasts (and yes, some of us have science degrees) but we're not professionally trained.
As such, the final decision on whether to use these kits is with you - however, based on our extensive research, exchanges with both experts and kit manufacturers, we're simply not convinced. If you've been bitten, whether it's by a pit viper or a coral snake, get professional medical attention as soon as possible.
Why We Don't Believe in Snake Kits
The title of this post pretty much gives our position on snake bite kits away right from the get-go: they don't work (on snake bites, anyway). Don't believe the marketing and be careful when other third-party reviews seem a little too good to be true.
In this article, we're going to go over the sales hype (and why you shouldn't believe it), we'll summarize the hardcore medical talk in an easy-to-digest format, and we'll also give you advice on what you can do to treat bites.
Medical Studies vs. Hype
When trying to decide between a truth and a myth, who do you go for? An unscrupulous salesman or a trained medical professional?
Not exactly a difficult question.
Unfortunately, peer-reviewed medical journals and articles by envenomation experts don't have the same $ in their coffers as companies trying to sell you a product. That leaves us at the mercy of sales copy, which in this case isn't just sketchy on a moral level but also downright dangerous.
We've put together 3 'exhibits' that showcase why we believe you should never use these kits for venomous snakes.
Exhibit A: Extractors Remove Bloody Fluid, Not Venom
The team behind the study used the Sawyer Extractor Pump to simulate snake bites in volunteers by inserting a mock venom and subsequently attempting to extract it from the wound according to manufacturer guidelines.
The results? Let's just say that Sawyer won't be using this study in their marketing materials. The pump removed plenty of bloody fluid from the faux victims, but virtually no mock venom whatsoever (just 0.04% of the envenomation load). The researchers concluded that suction is unlikely to offer effective treatment when it comes to venomous snakebites.
Exhibit B: Suction Devices Damage Skin
This is where we believe the case for not using snake bite kits gets more compelling. Not only are they proven not to work (see Exhibit A), they've also been shown to cause damage to the skin.
Why would you use something that medical professionals advise against, but will also cause harm? Well, I guess it's teason we've fallen victim to as well: sales copy from dodgy companies.
Exhibit C: Doctor Venom Says Snake Bite Kits 'Suck' (and so Do Other Experts)
Who knew that the snake envenomation arena has its own celebrities? Sean P. Bush, of Loma Linda University and East Carolina University fame, is known as 'Doctor Venom'. If anyone knows snakes, it's this guy.
So what does Dr Bush say about snakebite suction devices? We can't put it any better than the man himself:
"They Just Suck."
In his 2004 article, Dr Bush comes to several important conclusions about these kits (based on existing medical studies and his own experience/research):
His overall conclusion is one that we also support: the best first aid option for snake venom is your cellphone and a helicopter. Hopefully that's enough for you to consider the myth about snake bite kits as debunked.
Dr Bush is just one of many experts that advise against the use of snake bite kits. Timothy Erickson, former Director of Medical Toxicology at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, is also against it:
Make sure to watch the rest of the video for comprehensive advice on what you should do if bitten - MedWild's stuff is always excellent.
OmegaGear also did a great interview with Jim Harrison, director of the Kentucky Reptile Zoo, who comments that 'all the snake bite experts say to not use them':
In addition to the three authorities on the subject I've cited in this section, we've also privately exchanged emails with an additional three experts who all agree with the position that snake bite kits should not be used. We've asked them to provide a few quotes for this piece - once they've given us the green light, we'll post them here.
Extractor Kits Provide a False Sense of Security
Another reason that everyone on the BirrenCo squad (editor: a squad? okay...) is against the use of these kits is that they provide a false sense of security.
In this excellent Reddit thread, Jordan Benjamin, an experienced herpetologist and wilderness medicine practitioner, complains about the sheer number of patients who seek late treatment due to falsely believing that a snake bite suction device has done its job and extracted all venom.
Snake bite venom sometimes take several hours to take effect. This means that victims will often use a snake bite kit shortly after a bite, feel totally fine, and will then continue on their merry way until the venom finally kicks in. Unfortunately, this can lead to fatal consequences for the victim of the bite.
3 Reasons Why 'Successful' Cases Are Bogus
Claiming that snake bite kits don't work will have plenty of keyboard warriors up in arms. They'll claim that they've personally survived a venomous snake bite, or that there's a friend or family member who has. We don't buy it. And here are the simple reasons why:
But Some Doctors Say They Work?
Several readers have also sent in news stories where snake bite victims used a kit and survived. Their physicians subsequently agreed that the use of the extractor was vital in the treatment of the bite.
I don't doubt these stories. Misinformation isn't limited to the general population and it's definitely possible some doctors loosely agree that snake bite kits work.
I say 'loosely' on purpose here - they don't specialize in toxicology nor have they done much reading/research on the topic. I am sure that if they looked into the issue more closely or spoke to colleagues about it, they'd change their position.
Case in point: my wife is a qualified physician and knows very little about snake bites. When I asked her about pump extractor kits, she mentioned that antivenom is the accepted treatment but conceded she wasn't sure whether kits were marginally helpful or harmful. She just didn't know. Kits are just not an accepted part of the treatment cycle, so her knowledge on them is scant.
In other words, doctors aren't always the most reliable when venturing outside their area of specialization. Of course, I'd trust a doctor more as they defer to authoritative sources/colleagues, the treatment provided is backed by the medical field, and their medical knowledge is infinitely stronger than the Average Joe's. However, if you stick my wife and Jim Harrison in a debating hall covering herpetology/toxicology, I know who I'd pick.
Why Does the 'Wrong' Advice Still Exist?
Considering there's so much evidence against using these kits it baffles the mind to think that boy scout leaders all across America are still advising kids to carry one as part of their survival kit.
The difficulty with finding the right course of action after a venomous bite is that much of what's out there is antiquated. In other words, it's no longer valid and new research has supplanted previous advice.
For example, a survival book from the 1970s will still tell you to use a tourniquet. Some credible sources from a couple of decades ago tell you to use the famous 'cut and suck' technique (don't!).
The thing is, medicine is always evolving. What doctors will tell you to do today may not be advisable tomorrow. Ensure the advice you're taking isn't just originating from a credible source, but make sure that it's recent.
Some readers have emailed me to say that this may mean that doctors will somehow change their minds about snake bite kits.
The simple answer? They won't. The evidence against them is just too compelling - doctors and toxicologists alike will give you the same advice across the board.
To get an idea of the crazy stuff going around: there are some people on forums (I won't link to it, it's too insane) discussing whether they should use stun guns on snake bites. Other than a seriously painful electric shock, this advice is obviously not going to work. The internet is amazing at putting knowledge at our fingertips, but it's also incredibly dangerous in spousing incorrect information.
Does the Extractor Pump Kit Ever Come In Handy?
Considering just how much experts have slated bite kits, it's easy to come to the conclusion that such products don't work on anything.
Wrong. The Sawyer Extractor Pump Kit, for example, is actually worth buying, but not for snake bites.
Remember, the product itself isn't called a snake bite kit. It's intended (and marketed) to be used on all kinds of poisons and venoms. As such, these pumps are also extremely popular for bee and wasp stings, mosquitoes, and a range of other insects. Many people swear that these kits will work on a spider bite, but I'm not so sure. For those of you that would suffer an allergic reaction from a bite, for example, it may be useful.
I'm not going to commit the efficacy of the product in these instances as it's outside the scope of this guide. Having said that, we can mention a scientific study that has shown extractors to be effective in the removal of human bot fly larvae (a horrendous experience where the fly lays eggs under the skin, which then hatch and feed off the host).
I would be happy recommending these products if they went through a complete rebranding - at present, all I can do is give you the green light to buy them as long as you understand what they can/can't do. Preliminary reading has given me reason to believe these products may work on bug bites, but it's otherwise irresponsible to attach anything to do with snake envenomation to extractor kits. It's false advertising, plain and simple. And in this case, it's super dangerous and carries potentially fatal consequences.
List of Useful Resources
We've littered this guide with links to academic studies, expert opinions, and interesting YouTube videos. To make checking them out a little easier, we've bundled them up and added them to this section.
Join the Discussion!
Do you disagree with our position? We'd love to hear from our readers - comment in the section below and let's get a discussion about snakes going!