Coral Snake Envenomation

Updated: Aug 14, 2017
  • Author: Robert L Norris, MD; Chief Editor: Joe Alcock, MD, MS  more...
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Overview

Background

Approximately 40-50 species of venomous coral snakes exist in North America and South America, with the greatest variety from Mexico to northern South America. A number of African and Asian coral snake species also exist. All coral snakes belong to the family Elapidae; Micrurus fulvius (eastern coral snake) and Micrurus tener (Texas coral snake) are the most important species in the United States.

Another US coral snake, Micruroides euryxanthus (Sonoran or Arizona coral snake), is a relatively innocuous snake, and no deaths have been attributed to its bite.

Coral snakes tend to be relatively shy creatures, and bites are uncommon. Coral snakes account for less than 1% of venomous snakebites in the United States. Most people bitten by coral snakes are handling them intentionally. Most bites occur in the spring or fall.

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Pathophysiology

The coral snake venom apparatus is composed of a pair of small, fixed, hollow fangs in the anterior aspect of the upper jaw through which the snake injects venom via a chewing motion (see the image below). Unlike pit vipers, such as rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths, which strike quickly, coral snakes must hang on for a brief period to achieve significant envenomation in humans.

Coral snake skull. Coral snake skull.

Coral snake venoms tend to have significant neurotoxicity, inducing neuromuscular dysfunction. They have little enzymatic activity or necrotic potential compared with most vipers and pit vipers. These venoms tend to be some of the most potent found in snakes, yet the venom yield per animal is less than that of most vipers or pit vipers. Because of the relatively primitive venom delivery apparatus, as many as 60% of those bitten by North American coral snakes are not envenomed (ie, they receive a "dry bite").

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Epidemiology

Frequency

United States

There were 76 alleged coral snake bites reported to the American Association of Poison Control Centers in 2015. [1]

International

No accurate information on international incidence is available, but there are no regions of the world where coral snake bites would be considered common. [2, 3]

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Prognosis

With sound supportive care (eg, prevention of aspiration) and appropriate antivenom administration, when available, prognosis following coral snake envenomation is excellent; expect a full recovery. This is generally true, even in the absence of an available, appropriate antivenom, [4] but the overall clinical course (including the need for prolonged intubation and respiratory support) will be longer. Patients who survive the bite may require respiratory support for up to a week and may suffer persistent weakness for weeks to months.

A single death has been reported due to a coral snake bite in the United States in the last 40 years (roughly, since coral snake antivenom became available). [5] Before that time, the estimated case-fatality rate was 10%, and the cause of death was respiratory or cardiovascular failure.

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Patient Education

For patient education resources, see the patient education article Snakebite.

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