Coral Snake Vs Milk Snake: Key Differences Explained is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Learn More

At first glance, coral snakes and milk snakes can easily be confused due to their similar size, head shape, and often matching color patterns. However, distinguishing between them is crucial, as it could be a matter of life and death.

One of these snakes carries a potent venom, while the other is harmless. However, if you get bitten by a snake, it’s important to seek medical help right away. Even without symptoms of a venomous bite, getting checked by a doctor for your safety and peace of mind is crucial.

Understanding the key differences between these snakes is not only fascinating but essential for the safety and appreciation of these intriguing reptiles.

Understanding Coral Snakes and Milk Snakes

Milk snakes and coral snakes are both known for their vibrant colors and shiny, smooth scales, which often leads to confusion between the two. Despite some variations within coral snake species and milk snake subspecies, there are still key differences that help in accurately identifying each type.

The following chart highlights the key differences between milk snakes and coral snakes, helping you distinguish between these similarly colored species.

Milk Snake Coral Snake
Size 14 to 69 inches Typically 18 to 20 inches, although New World can reach 36 inches
Location North America and South America Asia (Old World coral snakes)The Americas (New World coral snakes)
Habitat Varies – forest, fields, rocky areas Forest areas, burrowed underground or under leavesIn desert regions burrowed under sand or soil
Color Banded coloration – often red, black, and yellow or varying shades. Darker colors outlined by black Brightly colored – usually black, red, and yellow bands. Black bands outlined by yellow
Venomous No Yes
Diet Mice, rats, voles, lizards, bird, bird eggs, snakes, snake eggs Frogs, lizards, other snakes
Kill method Wrap themselves around their prey until they are dead Paralyze and subdue prey with their venom
Lifespan 15 to 20 years 7 years

Coral snakes are divided into two groups: Old World and New World, with the former having 16 species and the latter boasting more than 65 species, each found in distinct geographical locations.

Milk snakes, part of the kingsnake family, belong to the genus Lampropeltis, a Greek term meaning “shiny shields.” There are 24 known subspecies of milk snakes, and historically, the scarlet kingsnake was mistakenly classified as a milk snake.

Comparison of Coral Snake vs. Milk Snake

Let’s embark on a journey of discovery as we delve into the captivating world of coral snakes and milk snakes, unraveling the mysteries behind their striking similarities and distinct differences.


While both milk snakes and coral snakes share a bright color palette of red, yellow, and black, their appearance shows noticeable differences. Milk snakes, which are non-venomous, mimic the coloration of the venomous coral snake as a deterrent to predators.

The key feature that differentiates them lies in their band patterns. Coral snakes typically display black bands bordered by yellow, whereas milk snakes have red bands surrounded by black.

The old saying “red on yellow, kill a fellow; red on black, venom lack” is popularly used to distinguish venomous snakes from nonpoisonous king snakes based on their red and yellow bands. However, this method isn’t completely foolproof and should be used with caution.

Additionally, coral snakes are easily identifiable by their solid black faces, which are typically followed by a distinct yellow band just below the black marking, further distinguishing them from their harmless look-alikes.


coral snake milk snake

The most significant distinction between milk snakes and coral snakes lies in their venom. Milk snakes are completely non-venomous and pose no danger to humans. Their small teeth mean that even a bite from them is harmless.

Conversely, coral snakes possess highly potent venom, ranking second in strength among all snakes. Their venom, delivered through short, fixed fangs, is laden with powerful neurotoxins that impact the brain’s control over muscles.

This can lead to serious symptoms such as vomiting, paralysis, slurred speech, muscle twitching, and, in severe cases, even death.

Nevertheless, fatalities from coral snake bites are rare in humans; 25% of bites are mild due to their less effective venom delivery system. Out of the roughly 9000 snake bites reported annually in the US, only about 25 to 50 are attributed to coral snakes.

Additionally, coral snakes typically only bite when they are accidentally stepped on or directly handled.


Coral snakes typically weigh around 3 pounds, in contrast to milk snakes, which can weigh as little as 1 pound.

In terms of size, milk snakes tend to be longer, with an average length ranging from 14 to 69 inches. Coral snakes, on the other hand, are usually smaller, averaging between 18 and 20 inches in length.

It’s worth noting that New World coral snakes are larger than their Old World counterparts, sometimes growing up to 3 feet long.


coral snake and milk snake

Milk snakes boast a broad habitat range across Canada, the United States, and South America. They are highly adaptable, thriving in forests but also found in fields and rocky slopes.

On the other hand, coral snakes are categorized into two groups: Old World coral snakes, residing in Asia, and New World, found in the Americas. Coral snakes live generally in forests or wooded areas, often burrowing underground or hiding under leaf piles. Some, however, adapt to desert environments, burrowing into sand or soil.

In the United States, coral snakes are typically found in only three regions, making encounters less likely outside these areas. They inhabit parts of Arizona and Texas and are also commonly found around Florida and its neighboring states.


While both milk snakes and coral snakes share some similarities in their diets, a notable difference lies in their hunting methods.

Coral snakes prefer to feed on lizards, frogs, and other small snakes, using their fangs to inject venom, which paralyzes and subdues their prey before consumption.

Milk snakes, on the other hand, have a broader diet that includes mice, rats, voles, lizards, birds, and various eggs, including those of snakes and birds. Interestingly, they are also known to prey on coral snakes.

As constrictors, milk snakes kill their prey by coiling around them, stopping the heart due to restricted blood flow, and then swallowing them whole.

Are Coral Snakes Dangerous?

Are Coral Snakes Dangerous

Coral snakes possess small, non-retractable fangs and typically hold onto their prey, chewing briefly to administer their venom. Unlike bites from other snakes that are highly venomous, coral snake bites can be less noticeable, often leaving minimal local tissue damage or obvious signs of injury and causing little immediate pain.

Despite this, the venom, particularly from the Eastern coral snake, is laden with potent neurotoxins that can lead to serious health issues or even death if not promptly treated.

Are Milk Snakes Dangerous?

do milk snakes have teeth

Milk snakes are frequently mistaken for the more dangerous copperheads or coral snakes, but they pose no threat to humans. In reality, they are quite popular as pets and are easily bred in captivity, making them a safe and favored choice for reptile enthusiasts.


In conclusion, while coral and milk snakes may share a striking resemblance in their vibrant coloration, understanding their differences is key. Coral snakes, with their venomous bite, contrast sharply with the harmless nature of milk snakes.

These differences extend to their habitats, diets, and behaviors, showcasing the diversity in the reptile world.

Whether you’re a nature enthusiast or simply curious, appreciating the distinctions between these two species of snakes not only deepens our understanding of these fascinating creatures but also highlights the importance of respecting and preserving wildlife in its natural habitat.

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