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The thought of snakes often ignites fear in many people.

But, it’s worth noting that less than a third of the entire snake species in many places are venomous.

Still, you need to exercise caution in the presence of snakes, keep a first aid kit around, and understand what to do in case of a snake bite.

Here’s how to tell if a snake is poisonous or non venomous. 

Identifying Dangerous Snakes – Quick Reference:

  • Elliptical Pupils (Slit Like Eyes – Like a Cat)
  • Triangular & Broad Head
  • Colorful Pattern
  • Rattles Tail
  • Heat Pit Between Nose & Eye
  • Peculiar Behavior

Here’s a helpful infographic from Snake-Removal.com

how to tell if a snake is poisonous venomous-snake-chart


Basic Information about Most Poisonous Snakes

Apart from the coral snake, all the poisonous snakes you’ll find in the USA are said to be pit vipers.

These include the cottonmouth, copperhead, and other rattlesnake species.

Usually, these snakes have big and fat heads and are generally fat and their pupils have slits.

Rattlesnakes have rattles at the end of their tails which makes them easy to identify.

Many times, if a snake is thin, chances are that it’s not venomous.

One thing you should remember is that: nearly all snakes come with triangular heads and many of them will have patterns and colors.

Therefore, these two characteristics won’t necessarily help you identify a snake in case of an emergency. 

More helpful reading:

What’s the Difference Between Poisonous and Venomous Snakes?

Biologists say that the term venomous is used on organisms which transfer toxins through stinging or biting.

On the other hand, poisonous is used on organisms whose toxins are transferred if you consume them.

This is a clear indication that just a small percentage of snakes can be said to be poisonous seeing that most dangerous snakes transfer toxins through biting with an exception of the garden snake, also known as the garter snake. 

How to tell if a Snake is Venomous vs Non Venomous

Knowing how to identify a venomous vs non venomous snake plays a huge role in helping you stay safe.

Here are tips to help you know how to tell a poisonous snake

Poisonous Snake Eyes Pupils are Elliptical

Instead of having round pupils, a venomous snake has slit-like elliptical eyes that resemble cat ’s eyes. 

Poisonous Snake Head Shape is Triangular and Broad

As we’ve seen above, nearly all snakes have triangular heads. This means you can’t rely on this characteristic alone to identify the most venomous snake in the US.

In addition to this feature, you’ll have to look out for other factors. The difference, in this case, can be spotted closer to the reptile’s jaw. In the case of a venomous snake, it’ll have a skinny neck and a fat head.

The reason for this is because the venom sacks are located under the snake’s jaw.

Non venomous snakes, on the other hand, have a steadily sloping jaw since they have no venom sacks. 

If it Rattles its tail

If a snake rattles its tail, you should run for dear life.

Rattling is the first sign that you’re encountering one of the most poisonous snakes.

Non venomous snakes make the rattling sound through hauling its tail across dry leaves.

Don’t be curious to figure out whether or not the snake is venomous. Staying away is safer.

If the Reptile has a Heat Sensing Pit

A snake’s heat-sensing pit in venomous snakes is located between the nose and the eye.

Of course, this isn’t a characteristic you would identify easily from a distance, and you wouldn’t dare go closer to the snake to get a clearer look.

Often, many vipers will have a heat-sensing pit. 

It has a Particular Behavior

Snakes behave differently.

For instance, harmless water snakes and water moccasins, also known as cottonmouths don’t behave the same when they swim.

The cottonmouth swims with its entire body floating above the water while the harmless water snakes let out only its head above the water.

Research extensively to understand how to easily tell if a snake is poisonous from a distance or not, especially if you live in areas where snakes are common.

If the Reptile has a Colorful Pattern

Many times, if a snake has solid colors, chances are it’s harmless.

On the other hand, if a snake is more patterned and colorful, you need to exercise caution.

Of course, not all overly patterned and colorful snakes are venomous.

A good example of this would be the black mamba commonly found in Eastern and Southern Africa. 

What Should You Do if You Encounter a Snake?

If you encounter a snake, the first thing you need to do is to move to safety.

However, if it’s safe, you may want to figure out whether it’s venomous or not from a distance.

Many times, a snake will slither away as fast as it senses your presence. As long as it’s not interfering with your safety, the best thing would be to let it disappear. 

Are Garden Snakes Poisonous

Garden snakes, also known as garter snakes, are commonly found in Central and North America.

They measure between 2 to 3 feet lengthwise, are thin, small, and their name was derived from their lengthwise white, yellow, or white stripes which run down through their backs.

Garden snakes are often found in backyards which explain their name.

Still, they can be found in grasslands, wetlands, and forests.

Garden snakes have no fangs which make them non venomous. Still, they have small teeth which can bite.

Garter snakes are usually harmless but seeing them in your garden can be frightening.

Types of Snakes

There are over 3,000 snake species across the world.

Surprisingly, there is at least one snake species in each continent save for Antarctica.

Here are some of the common types of snakes.


rattlesnake picture

The rattlesnake is the most venomous snake in the US.

If you’re seeking to understand how to identify poisonous snakes, the rattlesnake rattles the rings at its tail end and that is an easy way of identifying it.

Again, so dangerous is the rattlesnakes such that it can stretch out up to two-thirds of its body length to not only capture its prey but also to inject its venomous toxins.

The rattlesnake’s bite produces hemotoxic venom which navigates through the bloodstream and causes sweating weaken organs and tissue, blood clots, intense pain, and internal bleeding.

However, rattlesnakes only bite when they feel endangered.

If bitten by a rattlesnake, a victim may survive if the venom is removed immediately and one is treated. 


The cottonmouth, also known as a water moccasin, is more dangerous compared to the copperhead.

When caught off guard, the cottonmouth won’t freeze as is the case with the copperhead.

Rather, it prepares for a fight and can give worse bites than the copperhead.

Cottonmouth snakes generate a cytotoxic poison which damages tissue, prevents the blood from clotting, and results in hemorrhaging.

Cottonmouth bites can be fatal. 


The copperhead is popularly found in the Eastern United States and is one of the most venomous in the region.

Copperheads are nocturnal, quick-tempered, fast, and their bites cause intense pain which can linger for between two and four weeks.

While copperheads are pit vipers, they’re hardly fatal and are the least toxic.

It’s worth noting that while copperheads are nocturnal, they’re good at camouflaging during the day.

For instance, the copperhead often freezes in place rather than fleeing – which is normally the case with many other snakes.

If you live in an area where copperheads are common, you need to exercise caution lest you step on one accidentally.

Copperhead bites can be fatal even though they often give nearly harmless bites when they feel threatened. 

Coral Snake

Coral snakes are venomous snakes which have no heat sensors, triangular heads or even elliptical pupils.

Instead, they have red and black stripes segregated by yellow lines.

The coral snake produces a neurotoxic venom capable of stopping your heart and nervous system, and eventually causing death.

Coral snakes are isolated reptiles often found in unpopulated areas.

When caught off guard, coral snakes will attempt to flee first and only bite when they feel threatened.

Their fangs are short albeit deadly and may not penetrate through harder materials such as leather.

A victim who has been bitten by a coral snake should receive immediate attention.

Treatment: What to do when Bitten by a Snake

Snakes rarely attack humans vigorously except as a means of defense.

Here’s what you should do if you ever get bitten by a snake.

Call an Ambulance Instantly

All snake bites, whether from a venomous or non venomous snake, should be treated as an emergency.

It’s worth noting that many snakes have similar characteristics and you should get help as fast as possible to counter the effects.

Remember, you should remain as still as possible to prevent the poison from spreading across the body fast.

Call from your mobile phone if you have it at that time or ask someone else to seek immediate assistance. 

Stay Calm

Of course, this is easier to say than do, but being still and calm can slow down the venom from spreading in your body and potentially save your life.

Once you’re sure that the snake has disappeared after the bite, don’t go in search of help.

Rather, stay calm and if the people near you have a first aid kit, ask them to administer first aid before help comes.

Remember these tips:

  •  Call an Ambulance immediately
  • Stay calm
  • Remove jewelry from areas that could swell
  • Don’t attempt to fight the snake
  • Avoid cutting, sucking, washing, or pressing the bite
  • Fasten a pressure immobilization splint and bandage to prevent the venom from navigating through your lymphatic system (don’t have it so tight it restricts blood flow, though)
  • Change your position to keep the bite area level or below where your heart is at
  • Don’t apply ice
  • Don’t use a tourniquet
  • Don’t drink caffeine
  • Don’t drink alcohol
  • Make note of what the snake looked like and try to remember identifying features


Knowing how to identify venomous snakes is critical especially if you live in a snake-infested area.

Remember, many snakes have similar features and identifying them from a distance can be a tough task.

In case of a snake bite, remain calm and seek immediate attention.

These measures could save your life. 

More helpful reading: