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Gila monster bite: venom, wound and effects

The desert-dwelling Gila monster (Heloderma suspectum) is the only venomous lizard native to the US and also the largest. It looks similar to Mexican beaded lizards, but with a characteristic orange and black coloration.

This lizard is especially known for its venomous bite which is said to cause extreme pain that lasts for hours, but it is not considered dangerous because it does not have a particularly aggressive disposition and only bites as a defense mechanism.

A Gila Monster (Heloderma Suspectum)
A Gila Monster (Heloderma Suspectum)

Are Gila monsters dangerous

Gila monsters are considered a non-threatening species to humans. A wound from a Gila monster can be extremely painful but it is treatable and not fatal. Moreover, bites are easily preventable because these creatures do not attack if unprovoked.

To avoid a Gila monster from biting you, simply leave it alone. Never approach a wild Gila monster with your bare hands even if it appears to be friendly. These lizards are known to be somewhat shy and slow-moving but they jump at you and bite very quickly, in a split of a second.

If you or your pet are bitten by a Gila monster, seek medical attention immediately.

Gila monster bite

The Gila monster has pointy, recurved, sharp-like teeth which develop in a wavelike sequence and are replaced whenever broken or lost. The venom is produced by salivary glands at the end of the lower jaw, when the lizard bites, the toxins are transferred to the teeth and then chewed directly to the victim.

After biting, the Gila monster stays attached to its victim and does not loosen its grip for several seconds, or even minutes if not removed, which is enough time for the venom to be effectively transferred.

The Gila monster bite force has been reported to be up to 1000 N or 250 psi, although it has not been accurately measured and it is likely to be lower. In any case, the lizard is not big enough to cause serious damage to people and the real danger comes from the venom rather than the bite itself. The bite is often quick and unexpected.

Gila monster skull showing its sharp, venomous teeth.
Gila monster skull showing its sharp, venomous teeth.

Toxicity and bite effects

People who have been bitten by Gila monsters report excruciating pain, burning sensations, swelling around the wound and a general sense of weakness which may last for hours.

 The Gila monster bite may have some of all of the following effects in humans:

  • Extreme pain lasting several hours
  • Edema (build up of fluids and swelling of the area affected by the bite)
  • Rapid drop in blood pressure
  • Bruising
  • Diaphoresis (excessive sweating)
  • Dizziness
  • Vomiting

The venom contains at least four potentially lethal toxins which may cause lethargy, paralysis of the limbs, and haemorrhage of internal organs. Despite that, the venom is not considered fatal to humans and no people have succumbed to the Gila monster’s bite since 1930.

Removing the lizard as quickly as possible upon being bitten and seeking medical attention right away considerably lowers the risk of death. Humans who died prior to 1930 were reportedly intoxicated and/or underestimated the need for medical attention.

What to do if you get bit by a Gila monster

  • Once the Gila latches on, try to remove it as quickly as possible by prying its jaws open or submerge it in water
  • Try to stay calm and do not blame the animal for biting you. Leave it alone.
  • Seek medical attention immediately
  • Do not apply ice, constriction bandages or tourniquet
  • Keep an eye on your wound for the next day or two. Most people recover within 24 to 72 hours.

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