The presence or even mere thought of a snake would ignite fear in anyone. But that's okay, since many people are yet to acquire knowledge about snakes. That said, only a third of the snake's population on the planet have venom. The big task, however, comes when you have to distinguish between venomous and nonvenomous snakes. That can be a tall order if you know nothing to little about these dreaded animals.

To tell if a snake is venomous, check if it has a triangular-shaped head or elliptical eye pupils. Also, some venomous snakes have a colorful body pattern and may have rattles on their tails. A poisonous snake may have one or more of these features.

You must be very accurate in identifying the features of any snake you come across. As they say, you're never sure until you're sure. So, the best strategy is to stay away from any snake until you're completely sure that the snake is harmless. In addition, having an emergency kit is highly advised especially when strolling in areas where you may encounter a snake.

Let's now walk through the details of identifying venomous snakes and what to do in case a snake bites you. Plus, we'll also look at some common poisonous snakes you may encounter out there.

How to Know If a Snake is Poisonous

Knowing how to distinguish poisonous snakes from nonpoisonous ones is an important skill which you can use to save life. Don't let the reptile ruin your otherwise good stroll on the trails. The following are some of the features to look out for in a poisonous snake.

A Colorful Body Pattern

Most colorful snakes have venom, and they can be so dangerous. Thus, this is a feature that must raise an alarm every time you come across such a snake. But be warned; a snake such as Black Mamba has a solid body pattern, yet it is one of the most venomous. That means a colorful body pattern alone is not a sure bet that a snake is harmless. Thus, you must go for other identifiers even if the snake in question has a solid-colored body.

Head Features

Most nonpoisonous snakes have a round head. On the contrary, the majority of poisonous snakes have a triangular-shaped head, which they use to scare away predators. When considering this feature, you must realize that some nonpoisonous snakes tend to flatten their heads to deter predators.

Still on the head features, most venomous snakes are pit vipers. They include cottonmouths, copperheads, and rattlesnakes. They are called pit vipers because their heads have two holes/pits. The purpose of these holes is to sense heat from a potential prey. With these pits, these snakes can learn of the presence of a prey in their environment, even when it is still several meters away.

While the pits are a sure telltale sign, the sad part is that you may need to get as close as possible to the snake in order to see the pits. That amounts to risking your life. So, you must apply extra caution and remain within a safe distance at all times lest a pit viper pounces on you.

Elliptical Pupils

This is yet another identification feature that you can utilize to know if a snake is venomous or not. Do you have a cat in your home? You will realize that it has thin, black eyes with vertical pupils. And, the eyeballs surrounding the pupils are typically yellow-green in color. These descriptions refer to what is known as elliptical pupils. Now, that's what poisonous snakes have. On the contrary, a nonpoisonous snake usually has rounded pupils.

Like in checking a snake for pit vipers, you will need to observe elliptical pupils at close range. As such, this may not be a very reliable approach unless you've experience handling snakes, both venomous and nonvenomous. Keep distance!

Rattles on the Tail

If it rattles, then it is probably a poisonous snake. Rattlesnakes are poisonous snakes. Hence, it is advisable to flee from any scene if you hear a rattling sound. They are called rattlesnakes because their tails have rattles (a series of interlocking scale segments) . These segments produce a rattling sound when they hit against each other. It's this sound which helps a rattlesnake to escape a predator.

That said, there are nonpoisonous snakes which drag their tails in dry leaves to produce a rattling sound, yet they are not rattlesnakes. This is done for the same purpose as rattlesnakes. As such, not every rattling sound will come from a rattlesnake.

Common Poisonous Snakes

While there are many poisonous snakes, the most common ones include the rattlesnake, cottonmouth, copperhead, and corral snake.

Coral Snake

This is one of the most poisonous and dangerous snakes, given that it breaks most of the rules when it comes to identifying poisonous snakes. Elliptical pupils, pits, or triangular-shaped head; coral snakes don't have any of these features. However, the snake has a multi-colored body, with yellow, red, and black colors scattered all over body.

A coral snake boasts a potent neurotoxic poison. That means if the snake injects its venom into your system, your nervous system will shut down. That will bring your heartbeat to a halt, resulting in death. Thus, a coral snake is one of the deadliest snakes in the world, and the most poisonous in the entire United States.


This snake species is commonly found in the US, and it is known to have a quick temper. And while its bite would rarely cause death, it usually results in long and severe pain, which may persist for up to a month. Unlike most snakes which flee when they encounter a potential predator, a copperhead will freeze as a way of protecting itself, but it's ready to bite at that point.

Cottonmouth/Water Moccasin

This is more poisonous than the copperhead. Now, forget about the copperhead which freezes when ambushed; the water moccasin doesn't freeze. Rather, it can turn aggressive and bite right there. The snake has what is known as cytotoxic venom. As such, a cottonmouth's bite prevents clotting, leading to too much bleeding.


This is perhaps the most common poisonous snake of them all. It carries hemotoxic poison, which causes a number of complications, including internal bleeding, blood clots, swelling, and tissue degeneration. A rattlesnake bite is also extremely painful.

What to Do in Case of a Snake Bite

Unless you're sure that it's a harmless snake, such as a garter snake, it is best not to take chances if bitten by any snake. Before ascertaining the venomous status of the snake, here is what to do.

  • Remain still and calm so the venom does not spread quickly
  • Cover the wound with a clean piece of cloth to prevent infection
  • Remove any ornaments/metals that may cut your skin in case of swelling
  • Seek medical attention
    Once you seek medical attention, the medic should be able to know if you were bitten by a venomous snake or not (describe to the medic how the snake looks like). He will then know the best remedy based on his findings.

Final Thoughts

It is important to know how poisonous snakes look like. This knowledge goes a long way in helping to avoid those deadly bites, especially when living in a place where snakes are common. However, since it can be difficult to know whether or not a snake is venomous from a distance, the best thing is to keep off any snake.