Snake Bite – DOs and DON’Ts
Snake bites occur in many parts of the world, but generally speaking are more often witnessed in moderate-hot to tropical climate areas of the American, African, Asian, European and Australian continent. World Health Organization (WHO) even considers it as an important public health problem in rural areas around the world. Their recent study showed that at least 421,000 cases of envenoming and 20,000 deaths occur round the globe each year, with the highest frequency evident in Southeast Asia, South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
There are so many cases when poor access both to health services and first-aid medical treatment lead to fatal result with victim. But one thing that WHO states I find also very much interesting: they claim that only 50-70% of bites by a venomous species will actually cause envenoming. However if envenoming occurs, depending on the venom mixture in certain snake species, the different symptoms with a victim can occur. We all know, that vipers, rattle snakes, cobras and mambas are very lethal venomous snakes, but there are number of other venomous species that we haven't heard of. For me it was surprising for example that in Australia there is even a poisonous sea snake. Anyway, if you have a bad luck and encounter a venomous snake which bites you, below you will find a short list of venom types and typical damage they make to our bodies:
- Haemorrhagins disturb the integrity of blood vessels and cause of blood volume loss
- Cytotoxins cause local swelling and tissue damage
- Neurotoxins cause neurotoxicity (e.g. delusions, headache, cognitive and behavioral problems, loss of memory and/or vision)
- Myotoxins cause muscle breakdown
- Toxins leading to incoagulable blood.
Now let's get to the most important part of the text: the list of TO-DOs if ever bitten by some nasty snake:
DOs if bitten by a snake:
- First rule is to get on a safe place. Get away from a snake, as it may bite you again. Remember, a snake bite occurs because these reptiles feel endangered by a human in the first place. If a snake bites you once, that doesn't imply it will feel safe afterwards and won't attack you again.
- Get medical help (call 911 or applicable alternative) immediately. You shouldn't wait to feel the pain, since at that point, permanent tissue damage can already occur. Try to remain calm and don't forget that most snake bites are not fatal. If the area of the bite begins to swell and change color, the snake was probably poisonous.
- Remove constricting clothing pieces and jewelry from the bitten extremity. The area may swell and constricting items will cause tissue death. If you are bitten on the arm or finger remove any rings, bracelets or watches. Loosen any tight clothing in case swelling occurs. Make a loose splint, or use a sling on the bitten limb to help restrict movement of that area.
- Try to immobilize the affected limb while waiting for the prompt transfer to a medical facility. Pressure immobilization is used for some snake species such as cobras and mambas. What you need to do is to wrap the bitten extremity with an elastic pressure bandage. Start from the point closest to the heart and wrap towards the fingers or toes. Make sure you don't restrict chest movement with immobilization, as breathing will be affected by this.
- Minimize body movement and do not elevate. This is required in order to keep the affected area below heart level and to reduce the flow of venom through the body. On the other hand, holding the bitten part lower than the rest of body level can increase swelling.
- Monitor the bitten person's vital signs -- temperature, pulse, rate of breathing, and blood pressure -- if possible. If there are signs of shock (e.g. paleness), lay the person flat with feet raised about a foot, and cover the person with a blanket.
- When possible arrange for transport to the nearest hospital emergency room, where appropriate anti-venom for snakes can be given if required. Anti-venoms are manufactured by immunizing horse or sheep with venom from a particular species and then processing the serum from the animal. In addition to anti-venom therapy, management of snakebite also includes supportive therapy, such as ventilation for respiratory paralysis, which is often lifesaving for victims bitten by species which cause severe neurotoxicity.
There are few ways you can help medical staff identify as fast as possible the appropriate anti-venom that should be administered ASAP:
- If the snake is dead, you can bring it to the hospital. But be careful, since dead snakes can reflexively bite for up to an hour.
- Medical stuff in areas prone to snake bites can often identify the animal straight from the wound appearance. For example, pit vipers have two fangs and the bite often has two small holes.
- You can take a picture of snake with your camera or a cell-phone. It can help medical staff identify the snake that bit you.
The right anti-venom can save a person's life. Getting to an emergency room as quickly as possible is very important. If properly treated, many snake bites will not have serious effects. Below, you'll see a list of things you shouldn't be doing when such accident occurs.
- DON'T allow the bitten person to become over-exerted, and if necessary, carry the person to safety.
- DON'T apply a tourniquet. There are cases reported when due to applied tourniquet, the victim that has finally reached appropriate medical facilities had their limb being amputated. The use of a compression bandage is generally as effective, and much safer.
- DON'T apply cold compress or ice to a snake bite.
- DON'T cut into a snake bite with a knife or razor. Cutting into the wound will most likely just create additional infections.
- DON'T try to suck out the venom by mouth. This presents a risk of further poisoning to the person doing this through the mouth's mucous tissues. In addition to this risk, the release of bacteria from the person's mouth into the victim's wound can lead to infection.
- DON'T take pain relievers, aspirins or similar medications, unless a doctor tells you to do so.
- DON'T give the person anything by mouth.
- DON'T raise the site of the bite above the level of the person's heart. It can cause venom to travel into the body. Holding it down, can on the other hand increase swelling.
- DON'T wash the snake bite area, as the traces of venom left on the skin from the strike can be used in combination with other options to identify the species of snake. This speeds determination of which anti-venom to administer.
Additionally, here we outline few useful tips on how to prevention a snake bit.
Remember, as usual, prevention is the best option:
- Avoid walking around areas where snakes may be hiding, such as under rocks, logs and tall brush.
- Many snakes are not poisonous, but anyway avoid picking up or playing with snake you encounter.
- If you hike often, consider buying a snake bite kit.
- When walking in nature, use a walking stick and tap ahead of before entering an area where you can't see your feet. Snakes will try to avoid you if given enough warning.
- If you encounter a snake in nature, try not to provoke it. Remember, they bite humans only to defend themselves.
- Wear proper clothing when hiking in an area known to be snake habitat. Long pants and boots taller than the ankle should do the job.
- Make plenty of noise and vibration while walking - make snakes aware of your presence on time.
Hopefully, these tips all together will help prevent a case of being bitten by a snake. However if this happens to you, or someone next to you, now you know which steps to follow in order to help yourself and not to make things even worse.
Finally, in United States you can also consider calling the National Poison Control Center (1-800-222-1222). This national hotline number will let you talk to experts who can give you further instructions if you had an accident. Their service is free and confidential. Call center works 24/7.