Snakebites, Hollywood-style, make for dramatic scenes: The hero has only an instant to slash the victim's skin near the bite and suck out the venom before it's too late.

"Stop!" cry real experts on snakebites. They say slicing and sucking increase the dangers of bleeding, infection and delay in medical attention, all of which pose far greater risks than an untreated bite. "The best treatment for a snakebite in the wilderness is a set of car keys," said Robert Barish, associate dean for clinical affairs at the University of Maryland Medical School, who wrote a review of snakebite treatment in last week's New England Journal of Medicine.

Barish and his co-authors also debunk other folkloric approaches. Tourniquets and ice are "strongly discouraged," they say.

Though bites from venomous snakes in the United States aren't uncommon -- the American Association of Poison Control Centers puts the number at around 6,000 a year -- only five or six of those bites are fatal. That's due in part to better medicine and in part to simple odds: Most healthy adults can weather the poison of such snakes as the copperhead without antivenom. And, in a quarter of all bites, no venom even gets released.

Those who do die are generally those who delayed seeking medical attention for a day or two, said Barry Gold, a co-author of the paper and an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland.

"There's no reason why you should be killed by these things," he said.

Of the three people who have succumbed to snakes in Maryland in the last half-century, Barish said, only one was the victim of an indigenous species. The other two -- including an exotic dancer who used the snake in her act -- followed cobra bites.

-- Brian Reid