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snake bite first aid

How to Effectively Treat a Snake Bite!

We think that it is almost impossible to look at a snake bite and know if it is dangerous or not. In this article, we have tried to cover what we believe are the best first aid treatment options at the moment. Of course, these do depend on the type of snake that has bitten you. We really hope it helps.

We suggest first off that all snake bites are treated as potentially life-threatening. That way you are never going to be sorry that you did nothing! Our motto is ‘Better Safe than Sorry!’ If you are bitten by a snake, call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.

You should also know that a snake bite can cause a severe allergic reaction and in some cases life-threatening. This does not occur in every snake bite, just in some people and in rare cases.

What you need to know about snake bites

Australia has around 180 species of land snake and around 32 species of sea snake. Of this 200 +, there are approximately 100 that are venomous. The good news is that only about 12 of these will give you a bite that has the potential to kill you!

The most dangerous of these reptiles include:

  • Taipans.
  • Brown snakes.
  • Tiger snakes.

Then add to these snakes such as Death Adders, Black snakes, Copperhead snakes, and Rough Scaled snakes who will give a really nasty bite that can kill. You can also add some sea snakes and there is one reason to treat any bite as life-threatening!

Most snake bites happen when people try to kill or capture them and they get just a little bit too brave. If you come across a snake, don’t panic but do treat it with respect. Back away to a safe distance and let the snake move away. They will often want to escape when disturbed so leet them. They really don’t want to hurt you but if you corner one it will do what it needs to in order to get away from the situation!

There are different types of snake bites…

Dry bites

A dry bite is when the snake strikes but no venom is released. Nonetheless, dry bites will be painful. In some cases, they can cause swelling and redness around the area that the snake connected.

You cannot tell if a snake’s bite is a dry bite. Our recommendation is to always assume that you have been injected with venom. Always manage the bite as a medical emergency. Our experience tells us that once assessed by a doctor, there is usually no need for further treatment. If further treatment is required though, it will likely be an anti-venom that is used. Many snake bites in Australia do not result in envenomation, and so management can happen without antivenom.

Venomous bites

Venomous bites are of course the most dangerous. This is where the snake bites and releases venom into the wound. Remember that snake venom contains toxins and proteins. These are purely designed to stun, numb, or kill prey and other animals. The venom, interestingly also helps the snake with the digestion process.

Symptoms of a venomous bite will include:

  • severe pain around the site of the bite. In some cases, this will not be immediate and can come on later. It is worth noting that some bites are totally pain-free so don’t ignore if you have no pain.
  • swelling, bruising or bleeding from the bite
  • bite marks on the skin. These can be obvious puncture wounds but in some cases will be almost invisible small scratches
  • swollen and tender glands in the armpit or groin of the limb that has been bitten
  • your skin may tingle, sting or burn
  • a feeling of anxiety
  • nausea (where you feel sick) or vomiting (where you are actually sick)
  • dizziness and blurred vision
  • headache
  • breathing difficulties and problems swallowing
  • stomach pain
  • irregular heartbeat
  • muscle weakness
  • confusion
  • blood oozing from the site or gums
  • collapse
  • paralysis, coma, or death can occur in the most severe cases

In Australia, there are about 2 deaths a year from venomous snake bites. Don’t ignore these symptoms, do something!

Snake identification

Identification of the type of antivenom required can be made from venom present on clothing or the skin using a ‘venom detection kit’. The kit will only identify the venom type: Neurotoxin, Mycotoxin, Hemotoxin. Cytotoxin. It will not identify the snake. With this in mind, resist washing or sucking the bite and do keep any clothing that has puncture marks.

Under no circumstances should you try to catch or kill the snake to identify it. Your medical team would not rely on a visual identification of the snake species. All you would achieve is putting yourself in more danger!

Rest assured that antivenom is available for all venomous Australian snake bites.

For all snake bites, provide emergency care including cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) if needed. You should immediately call triple zero (000) for an ambulance. You should apply a pressure immobilisation bandage. You should do everything possible to keep the person calm and as still as you can until medical help arrives. If you can’t use a pressure bandage, because the bite is on the trunk or stomach, please do apply and keep constant firm pressure.

You should always avoid washing the bite area. There may be venom left on the skin and this can be swabbed. From these swabs, the medical team can identify the type of toxin and treat as appropriate. DO NOT apply a tourniquet, cut the wound or attempt to suck the venom out.

Pressure immobilisation bandage

A pressure immobilisation bandage is strongly suggested for anyone bitten by a snake. The way to apply one is to firmly bandage the area of the body involved. Once done every effort should be made to keep the person calm and still until medical help arrives.

Follow these steps to apply a pressure immobilisation bandage: 

  • First put a pressure bandage over the bite itself. It should be tight (as if you were bandaging a sprain) but not so tight as to stop the blood flow. You should not be able to easily slide a finger between the bandage and the skin.
  • Then use a heavy crepe or elasticised roller bandage to immobilise the whole limb. Start just above the fingers or toes of the bitten limb and move upwards on the limb as far as the body. Splint the limb including joints on either side of the bite.
  • Keep the person and the limb completely at rest and ensure that the limb stays below heart level. That slows the spread of the venom. If possible, mark the site of the bite on the bandage with a pen.

The risk of anaphylactic shock

There is no doubt that some snake bites are painful. In addition to this, there are rare cases where someone will have a severe allergic reaction to a bite. In cases of a severe allergic reaction, the whole body can react very quickly and very dramatically to the bite. This can then lead to anaphylactic shock. Anaphylactic shock is very serious and can be fatal.

Symptoms of anaphylactic shock may include:

  • difficult or noisy breathing
  • difficulty talking and/or hoarse voice
  • a swollen tongue
  • persistent dizziness or collapse
  • swelling or tightness in the throat
  • pale and floppy (young children)
  • wheeze or persistent cough
  • abdominal pain or vomiting

Call triple zero (000) for an ambulance. If the person has a ‘personal action plan’ to manage a known severe allergy, they may need help to follow their plan. This may include administering adrenaline via an autoinjector (such as an Epipen®) if one is available.

If you need help Pat Lazzaro is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Just ask!

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