Denim as snake bite protection?

Denim pants, worn since 1873 by workers, and since the 50s by everyone else, have had a reduction in their use as outdoor clothing due to the emergence of performance hiking apparal. Denim jackets are markedly less popular recently. Now, what if it turns out denim protects you from envenomation? Would denim then come back as an overlander outfit?

EBM Gone Wild denim snake protection

This article tried to ascertain whether denim has any ability to decrease the severity of snake bites, mainly be decreasing or eliminating envenomation. To study this, they used 17 different southern Pacific rattlesnakes divided into small (35-54cm) and large (66-102cm) groupings, and had them bite latex gloves that were either uncovered or covered with standard denim cloth. The paper has a very detailed methods section, including even the material in the snake cages when they were being stored!

Crotalus oreganus helleri
Source: Matthew Robinson

The results were pretty surprising. There was a 60% reduction in venom for the small snakes, and 66% reduction in the large snakes. If it were simply a material thickness, a larger snake should be better at penetrating the material, but this was not borne out by the data. Since defensive strikes by nature are very fast (<0.33s), the reduction is likely from simple physics.

Thus, you can take home that denim can reduce the amount of venom you receive if a snake strikes you defensively. Sadly, the reduction is probably academic for big snakes, as the amount you receive can still be enough to kill you. Especially in the case of the snake species studied, a particularly nasty rattlesnake that has both hemorrhagic and neurotoxic venom components.

The bigger take home point from this article is that it is yet another nail in the coffin for the “small snakes are more dangerous” myth about defensive strikes. Bigger snakes will deliver more venom, regardless of what you are wearing. In this paper, they delivered 41 times the venom load of the smaller snakes, and 26 times the load when denim interfered. Please make sure and correct the next person you hear trying to propagate this myth.

And wear some denim if you’re going rattlesnake wrangling.

Herbert SS, Hayes WK. Denim clothing reduces venom expenditure by rattlesnakes striking defensively at model human limbs. Ann Emerg Med. 2009 Dec;54(6):830-6. [PMID 19942067]


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EBM Gone Wild

Wilderness Medicine

Emergency physician with interests in wilderness and prehospital medicine. Medical Director of the Texas State Aquarium, Padre Island National Seashore, Robstown EMS, and Code 3 ER | EBM gone Wild | @EBMGoneWild |

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