It can be almost impossible to look at a snake bite and know if it is dangerous or not. We have tried to cover the best first aid treatment options depending on the type of snake involved and we really hope it helps.
Our recommendation is that all snake bites are treated as potentially life-threatening. If you are bitten by a snake, call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance. It is also important that you know that a snake bite can cause a severe allergic reaction. This does not occur in every instance, just in some people and in rare cases.
About snake bites
Australia has around 180 species of land snake and around 32 species of sea snakes Of those, there are approximately 100 that are venomous. The good news is that only about 12 of these will give you a bite that can potentially kill you!
These dangerous reptiles include Taipans, Brown snakes and Tiger snakes. Add to those Death Adders, Black snakes, Copperhead snakes and Rough Scaled snakes. You can add some sea snakes and there is the reason to treat any bite as life-threatening!
Most snake bites happen when people get a bit too brave and try to kill or capture them. If you come across a snake, don’t panic. Back away to a safe distance and let it move away. Snakes often want to escape when disturbed. 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!
Different types of snake bites
A dry bite is when the snake strikes but no venom is released. Dry bites will be painful and may cause swelling and redness around the area of the snake bite.
Because you can’t tell if a snake’s bite is a dry bite, it is always safer to assume that you have been injected with venom. Manage the bite as a medical emergency. Once assessed by a doctor, there is usually no need for further treatment. If further treatment is required it will likely be an anti-venom that is used. Many snake bites in Australia do not result in envenomation, and so management happens without antivenom.
Venomous bites are when the snake bites and releases venom into a wound. Snake venom contains toxins and proteins that are designed to stun, numb or kill prey and other animals. Also assists with the digestion process.
Symptoms of a venomous bite include:
- severe pain around the bite, this might come on later (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 might be obvious puncture wounds or almost invisible small scratches)
- swollen and tender glands in the armpit or groin of the limb that has been bitten
- tingling, stinging, burning or abnormal feelings of the skin
- feeling anxious
- nausea (feeling sick) or vomiting (being sick)
- blurred vision
- breathing difficulties
- problems swallowing
- stomach pain
- irregular heartbeat
- muscle weakness
- blood oozing from the site or gums
- paralysis, coma or death (in the most severe cases)
In Australia, there are about 2 deaths a year from venomous snake bites. Don’t ignore the symptoms above, do something!
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. Keep hold of any clothing that has been punctured.
Do not try to catch or kill the snake to identify it. Your medical team would not rely on visual identification of the snake species and you may be putting yourself in more danger!
Antivenom is available for all venomous Australian snake bites.
For all snake bites, provide emergency care including cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) if needed. Call triple zero (000) for an ambulance. You should apply a pressure immobilisation bandage. It is important to keep the person calm and as still as possible until medical help arrives. If you can’t use a pressure bandage, because the bite is on the trunk or stomach, apply and keep constant firm pressure.
Avoid washing the bite area because any venom left on the skin can be swabbed and in turn help identify the type of toxin.
DO NOT apply a tourniquet, cut the wound or attempt to suck the venom out.
Pressure immobilisation bandage
A pressure immobilisation bandage is recommended for anyone bitten by a snake. This involves firmly bandaging the area of the body involved, such as the arm or leg, and keeping 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 keep the limb below heart level. If possible, mark the site of the bite on the bandage with a pen.
Snake bites can be painful. In rare cases, some people will have a severe allergic reaction to a bite. In cases of a severe allergic reaction, the whole body can react within minutes 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!