Coral snakes are most notable for their red, yellow/white, and black colored banding. (Several nonvenomous species have similar coloration, however, including the Scarlet Kingsnake, the Milk Snake, and the Chionactis occipitalis annulata.) In some regions, the order of the bands distinguishes between the non-venomous mimics and the venomous coral snakes, inspiring some folk rhymes — “Red on yellow, kill a fellow; red on black, friend of Jack” “Red to yellow, kill a fellow; red to black, venom lack.
Most species of coral snake are small in size. North American species average around 3 feet (91 cm) in length, but specimens of up to 5 feet (150 cm) or slightly larger have been reported. Aquatic species have flattened tails, to act as a fin, aiding in swimming.
Like all elapid snakes, coral snakes use a pair of small fangs fixed in the front of their top jaw to deliver their venom. They feed on smaller snakes, lizards, frogs, and nestling birds and rodents etc. The venom takes time to fully take effect.
Coral snakes have a tendency to hold on to a victim when biting, unlike vipers which have retractable fangs and tend to prefer to strike and let go immediately. Coral snakes are not aggressive or prone to biting however, and account for less than one percent of the number of snake bites each year in the United States. Most coral snake bites in the United States are legitimate occurring because of accidental contact with the snake while engaged in an outdoor activity such as gardening.
According to the National Institutes of Health, there are an average of only 15-25 coral snake bites nation-wide each year.
When confronted by humans, coral snakes will almost always attempt to flee, and bite only as a last resort. In addition, coral snakes have short fangs (proteroglyph dentition) that cannot penetrate thick leather clothing. Any skin penetration however, is a medical emergency that requires immediate attention. Coral snakes have a powerful neurotoxin that paralyzes the breathing muscles; mechanical or artificial respiration, along with large doses of antivenin, are often required to save a victim’s life. There is usually only mild pain associated with a bite, but respiratory failure can occur within hours. With the Texas subspecies, at least, pain can set in within 30 seconds and become extreme in less than 1 hour (personal experience)