More Harm, No Good: New Report Debunks Venom Extractor Kits

After a comprehensive literature review and interviews with 15 experts, the consensus is clear: venom extractors should not be used for snakebites.

When the casual hiker looks up “venom extractor kit” she’ll find they’re widely available: at outdoor-centric shops, via dozens of sellers on Amazon.com and any number of other online retailers. All this even though snakebite researchers have shown for more than 60 years that such kits do not work – and may, in some cases, do greater harm to the victim.

BTG Specialty Pharmaceuticals published a report after examining nearly three dozen clinical research studies, editorials, guidelines, and literature reviews on venom extractors that all point in the same direction: venom extractors do not work on snakebites. Our interviews with 15 expert practitioners in the treatment of snakebites confirms this scientific consensus.

So why do venom extractors continue to be bought and sold? What risks do they pose to users? And how can we solve this problem?

A “talisman” that preys on fear

Some conjecture that extractors function as a talisman – a charm that hunters and others carry to ease their fears of encountering snakes in the wild. Others believe the extractors appeal to “preppers” – those adventurers who are contented only when they have prepared (or believe they have) for every potential scenario.

“People feel really helpless when it comes to snakebites,” says Dr. Susanne Spano, Associate Professor of Clinical Emergency Medicine, University of California San Francisco and Director, Wilderness Medicine Fellowship. “They want to be able to do first aid. Kits like this prey on fear.”

The Risk: Time is Tissue

Extractor kits do not provide adequate first aid for snakebites. In fact, medical experts universally say the best course of action for snakebites is to get to a hospital as quickly and as safely as possible. Every moment of time lost allows venom to spread through the surrounding tissue, increasing the potential for long-term damage and disability.

That would include any time spent deploying a venom extractor.

“Using an extractor simply delays getting care or gives the victim a sense of having done something,” says Dr. William Banner, Medical Director, Oklahoma Center for Poison and Drug Information and a former president of the American Association of Poison Control Centers. “It’s rare that the person loses an arm or leg. They just lose time getting to the hospital, and that is critical. Time is tissue.”

The Solution: Education

Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence disputing extractors, it remains a difficult message to get out to the public. Education and awareness present a solution.

“To put minds at ease, we should talk about the high number of bites but low number of deaths,” says Jordan Benjamin, herpetologist and Founder of Asclepius Snakebite Foundation. “So there is time to get to the hospital. Why mess it up?”

Retailers could also be part of the solution – if they were to critically compare the marketing claims made by venom extractors to the medical evidence regarding their efficacy for snakebites, the responsible decision would be to remove them from their shelves. BTG Specialty Pharmaceuticals has sent letters to several leading retailers currently selling venom extractors asking them to compare the claims to the facts. You can help by visiting our campaign page here for shareable content and a printable summary to bring to your local retailer.

Government regulators may yet play a role in this. Though the FDA has not yet weighed in on the kits’ efficacy, the agency does have a history of halting the sale of devices that purported to be effective in treating snakebites; it banned the promotion of stun-guns for that purpose in 1990.

Addressing venom extractors is perhaps more important now than ever. Statistics from last year suggest a rise in snakebites: as COVID-19 pushed people outside, hospitals and poison centers around the country reported marked increases in snakebite victims.

While the numbers of deaths from snakebite venom is very small, the CDC warns that the number of deaths would be much higher if victims did not urgently seek medical care.

One way to avoid that fate is to make sure those consumers never purchase venom extractor kits – either because they know better, because retailers decide to stop selling them, or because the government prohibits their sale.

To learn more about the dangers of venom extractor kits, read the full report here.