People instinctively panic after being bitten by a snake. But did you know that remaining as calm and as still as possible could actually save your life?
This article will explain why staying calm and motionless is crucial in the first few moments after a snakebite. Additionally, it will also describe some pertinent dos and don’ts while performing first aid for snakebite.
Can you survive a venomous snakebite?
Cobras, rattlesnakes and vipers are just some of the world’s deadliest species of snakes.
It is possible to survive a venomous snakebite, as not all poisonous snakes are fully charged with venom. Even the fully charged ones may not always inject a lethal dose of venom when they strike.
So, while it is possible to survive after being bitten by a poisonous snake, the key is knowing how to respond with snakebite first aid and doing so promptly.
Factors that influence the seriousness of being bitten by a snake
All snakebite should be treated seriously, unless you can confirm that you were bitten by a harmless snake. The severity of the bite increases once you know that the snake is a poisonous one.
The victim’s age, size, health and psychological state should also be considered when treating the snakebite. Children, for instance, are at a higher risk of death from the bite due to their age and size.
Other crucial factors that you need to take into consideration are the health of the snake, the interval since it last used its venom mechanism and the nature of the bite.
This information can be a matter of life and death. Applying the exact treatment hinges on knowing how many fangs a victim was bitten with, how much venom was injected, where the bite is on the victim’s body, and whether it is near any major blood vessels.
To sum up, being struck by a ‘mildly’ venomous snake may be life-threatening, whereas an incident involving a ‘highly’ venomous snake may not. It all depends on the circumstances—the type of snake, certain characteristics of the victim and the details of the bite.
How long does it take to die from snakebite?
If prompt medical treatment is not administered, the victim could die within hours or minutes.
How to treat snakebite in the wild?
Snakebite is common in some parts of the world. In India, for example, snakebite has led to approximately 58,000 deaths per year.
In Queensland, Australia, it is not uncommon to hear of people suffering from snakebite around their homes and out in the bush or other wild areas.
Knowing appropriate first aid, especially if it catches you off guard in the wild, can be extremely useful in saving your life.
You can treat the snakebite as a puncture wound, but only if you are certain that you have been bitten by a harmless species of snake.
Stop any bleeding from the bite wound with a clean cloth (or sterile gauze, preferably). Once the bleeding has ceased, you may clean and dress the wound to prevent any infection.
The best thing to do if you have been bitten by an unknown or unfamiliar snake is to treat the matter as an emergency. In this situation, you need to seek immediate help.
Some venomous snakes not only have the most toxic venom, but they also inject the most venom with each bite. An example is the inland taipan, which is a snake prevalent in Australia.
Once bitten by such a snake, your survival would depend on whether you receive antivenom—the only medicine to neutralise the toxins of dangerous snakes—and in a timely manner.
Thus, getting instant and reliable antivenom at a hospital or treatment centre becomes a race against time in a life-threatening situation.
What to do if you get bitten by a snake?
Learning how to handle snakebite is important, especially if you live in a territory with venomous snakes. If you are dealing with a victim, the fundamental steps to take include:
- Call country emergency numbers
Your first instincts should be to immediately seek medical help for the victim. Call the emergency number of your locality (for example, 911) to report the incident and follow the instructions given by the emergency responder.
- Leave the snake alone
A snake uses a number of defence mechanisms to survive in its surroundings and to protect itself when it feels threatened. Most snakes would rather avoid detection by their predators, choosing to hide or flee instead.
Thus, when the snake chooses to strike, this is a sign that it feels agitated and threatened. In this situation, you need to avoid it at all costs.
After the incident, you must refrain from trying to capture the snake. This may further agitate the creature, causing it to strike again.
Instead, move the victim to safety away from the snake and do everything possible to treat the bite while waiting for medical aid to arrive.
Even if the snake is killed, you still need to leave it alone. Unbeknown to many people, a dead snake is still able to reflexively bite for up to an hour. So, unless you are trained to manage dead snakes, you need to distance yourself and the victim from it.
- Remain calm and restrict movement
Keep the victim relaxed and still—this is pivotal to avoid increasing the victim’s heart rate.
An increased heart rate and movement of the bitten area will cause the venom injected by a poisonous snake to circulate much faster in the body. The spread of the venom will attack vital organs—for example, it can cause muscle death that risks kidney failure or paralyse breathing muscles that can cause death.
- Look for symptoms of a venomous bite
It is good to rule out whether the snake is a venomous one. If neither you nor the victim is familiar with the species of the snake, you need to look out for the symptoms of a venomous bite.
A poisonous bite can be mildly or extremely painful, depending on the type of snake. Redness and swelling of the bite area can occur within 5 minutes, besides blistering, experiencing a burning sensation, and bleeding.
Before the bitten area swells up, you need to loosen or remove tight clothing items close to the bite (watch, jewellery, belt, shoes). These items may tighten around the swollen area, constricting it further, which could result in further complications and even tissue damage.
The victim may exhibit symptoms including weakness, tiredness, nausea and vomiting. The situation becomes critical when the victim’s blood pressure starts to drop, or he or she starts to lose consciousness, convulse or go into shock.
A venomous bite can also potentially cause extensive internal bleeding, tachycardia (a high resting heart rate), the risk of respiratory failure, and paralysis.
- Note the appearance of the snake
Taking note of any characteristics or markings on the snake’s body could be useful information for medical responders. It may help them to determine the best course of action for the victim.
It may help to snap a photo of the snake with your mobile phone’s camera, but only if doing so is safe. However, even if you overlook this step, do not worry—responders can still identify the type of snake based on the bite itself.
What not to do if you are a victim of snakebite?
Here are some important rules of what to avoid after a snakebite incident:
- Catch the snake
Capturing the snake is highly risky and not advisable for two simple reasons: it is swift when striking and its bite is potentially deadly. Furthermore, this snake is already in defence mode, so you risk a second bite by trying to corner and catch it.
- Elevate bite area above the level of the heart
Elevating the area bitten by a snake can cause the venom to travel faster through the body. Hence, it is vital to ensure that the bite wound is always lower than the heart to decrease the circulation of blood.
The recommended action to take is to get the victim to lie down and relax.
- Cut the wound to suck out the venom
Cutting the wound with a knife may cause further damage and increase the risk of an infection.
Apart from that, you may think that extracting the venom via sucking it out from the wound is helpful. However, this risks a bacterial infection of the wounded area, and accidentally ingesting the venom may cause poisoning.
- Apply a tourniquet
Modern snakebite experts strongly advise against using a tourniquet for a bitten limb, as they deem it ineffective and even dangerous.
For one, a tourniquet will restrict or stop the victim’s blood flow. What this will do is concentrate the snake venom in the limb which, in turn, increases the chances of tissue damage.
Obstructing the victim’s blood circulation with a tourniquet could also harm the limb by causing gangrene, leading to amputation of the limb, and even death.
First aid for snakebite—dos and don’ts
Here is a quick reference list of how—and how not—to apply basic first aid:
- Do call your emergency care number for medical help for the victim immediately.
- Do get the victim to lie down in a comfortable position, keep the person calm, and limit the movement of the bitten area or limb. You could use splints on the limb to restrict any movement.
- Do be alert to any symptoms of a venomous bite, and start loosening or removing clothing items that may tighten around the bite area if it swells. Monitor the progress of swelling, as this piece of information could also help the emergency responders.
- Do note the time of the snakebite, so that the responders know how much time has passed and how critical the victim’s situation is.
- Do apply firm pressure to the bitten area to prevent the venom from spreading in the body. You can fasten a bandage, or a piece of cloth, to place direct pressure. Keep the bitten area lower than the heart.
- Do perform CPR if the victim starts having breathing difficulties.
- Do not move the victim unnecessarily, other than to remove the person from harm’s way and to provide first aid safely. If possible, just remain where the victim is found to avoid movement which will increase the person’s blood circulation.
- Do not raise the bite area above the level of the heart.
- Do not wash the bitten area, as it will remove traces of the venom that responders could use to quickly identify the species of the snake in order to save the victim’s life.
- Do not attempt to cut the wound, suck out the venom or apply a tourniquet.
- Do not try to medicate the bite with medicine or painkillers, as it may have an adverse effect (thinning of the blood).
Ultimately, accurate and prompt medical aid for snakebite will make the difference between life and death. A systematic first-aid response will prevent a host of medical complications that could cause permanent damage to organs, and also death.