Australia is well known for poisonous and deadly creatures, with snakes being right at the top of the list of “Things that don’t help tourism”. In fact, Australia has six of the top 12 most venomous snakes on earth, including the world’s most venomous snake – the Inland Taipan. Australians grow up knowing to wear thick boots in the bush and to be wary of long grass during summer.
But just how much danger are we in from venomous snakes? How likely are we to die from a snake bite, and can snake bite first aid actually help if someone gets bitten?
How dangerous are snake bites?
The bad news is that snakes are very common in Australia. This is true not only in the bush but also in suburban areas – where they often hunt prey such as mice and rats, attracted to human food and refuse. Australia has about 170 species of snake (land and sea), and around 100 of those are venomous. Generally, several thousand people will be bitten by snakes in any given year.
Fortunately, there’s also good news. First, of the 100 species of venomous Australian snake, only 12 are likely to inflict a potentially fatal wound. Another piece of good news is that we now have antivenoms available for every venomous snake species in Australia. And probably as a result of this, snake bite deaths are now quite rare – on average, only around 1-2 people die each year in Australia due to snake bite.
It’s hard to talk about how dangerous snakes are in general, as many factors affect this. For example, the Inland Taipan – capable of killing more than 100 people with a single bite worth of venom – is a reasonably reluctant biter that will generally escape rather than bite if it can. It also normally lives in inland Australia, away from humans. By contrast, the Eastern Brown Snake – the second most venomous land snake – frequently lives near humans. It also moves faster than a human can run, will react aggressively if startled, and is solely responsible for over 60% of the snake bite deaths in Australia.
Avoiding snake bites
In Australia, people should always be careful in bush areas or long grass and always wear sturdy footwear in such areas. The vast majority of snakes in Australia avoid humans and attempt to hide or escape if a human comes near. As such, treading firmly and deliberately stirring ground cover and vegetation will usually warn snakes that a human is coming and encourage them to move away. Snakes don’t hear well, but they do feel vibrations. The odds of a bite occurring go up considerably when a snake is startled and down when it can sense a human approaching from some distance away. Eastern Brown Snakes, for example, have been observed to avoid or hide from humans in around 97% of human encounters.
It’s worth ensuring that your house has no easy access points for snakes – such as easy gaps under doors or low vents not protected by mesh. Residential homes can be pretty attractive to snakes in summer, with good shelter from the summer heat and sometimes a supply of mice or rats for food.
If a snake is encountered, it’s best to give the snake a chance to retreat and minimise the possibility of it feeling threatened. Slowly backing away is generally the best idea unless the snake is acting aggressively. If moving seems to provoke the snake, it may be best to remain perfectly still – snake vision is very poor, and they struggle to see something that isn’t moving.
Don’t ever actively approach a snake if you can avoid it. The majority of bite incidents have been from people attempting to catch or kill a snake. Even timid snakes can be aggressive when cornered, and “defensive” bites often involve more venom than a bite to capture or kill prey. If you find a snake in your house, you should stay clear and immediately call a professional to remove it – don’t try to catch or chase it away yourself.
Symptoms of snake bite
While the image most people have in their hear is of a face-to-face encounter with a snake that then lashes out and bites an arm or an ankle. Those situations certainly do happen, but it’s not always so clear cut. In many cases, a snake might strike from hiding, and the victim won’t get a clear look at what bit them or even realise that the pain they felt was a bite. There have even been rare cases where people have died from snake bite without ever realising they had been bitten.
A snake bite will generally have two puncture wounds (which might appear only to be cuts or scratches) and be painful around the bite area. This pain may be quite intense, depending on the snake species. The bites might bleed, and there might be a tingling or stinging sensation at the bite site. Other symptoms may include nausea, headaches, vomiting, fainting, abdominal pain, impaired vision, diarrhea, or cold, clammy skin. Swollen and tender glands near the bite aren’t uncommon, and sometimes confusion, dizziness, weakness, and difficulty speaking, swallowing or breathing. Fear is also a common reaction – most people know that snake bites can be fatal.
These symptoms will not be present for every snake bite. It’s worth knowing that many snake bites – including up to 80% of Eastern Brown Snake bites – are what’s called “dry bites”. This is a bite that injects no venom. That’s a handy fact to remember when reassuring the victim to keep them calm. But it’s also worth remembering that the bites of some venomous snakes (such as the Northern Brown Snake) are relatively painless. As such, while you should reassure the victim, you should also treat any snake bite as potentially venomous.
Snake bite first aid
If someone nearby has suffered a snake bite, the first thing to do is check for danger. Make sure the snake is not still in the area and likely to bite someone else – you can’t help the victim if you become a victim yourself. Do not approach or attempt to catch the snake. If you see the snake, take note of its appearance but don’t get close. Nowadays, snakes are more often identified by traces of the venom on the wound or the bandage and not by catching or killing the snake (which is very dangerous).
Once the area is safe, the victim should be made comfortable and reassured. They should also move around as little as possible, as moving can speed the spread of venom. Every snake bite should be regarded as potentially life-threatening, so have someone call 000 (or do it yourself) ASAP. Leave identifying the snake and assessing how serious a bite is to the experts.
Don’t wash the wound, as traces of venom on the skin or surrounding clothing can tell experts what species the snake was and what antivenom will work best. Instead, apply pressure and a bandage or clean cloth to the bite wound – the pressure will slow the spread of the venom, provided. The dressing should be tightly wrapped, applying pressure to the wound but not cutting off blood flow (if fingers or toes are starting to go blue, that’s too tight).
Ensure the patient remains still and as calm as possible. If it’s practical, a splint can limit movement on a bitten limb. Also, take note of where the bite is located and when first aid was applied. This can be written on the skin near the bite.
Where possible, you should defer to someone with professional first aid training if one is available. First aid courses cover poisonous bites and stings as part of the training. They also cover the Drs ABCD protocol, which can be an invaluable tool for remembering how to act in a crisis. Teachers and childcare workers need to be certified in first aid training as part of their role – so they’re ideal people to ask for help with snake bite first aid.
If you live in an area where the risk of snake bite is significant, you should seriously consider investing a day in getting first aid training.
Snake bite bandage
Applying pressure to the wound to slow down the venom is one of the best things that can be done for a snake bite victim. Although a tightly wound bandage can do the job well enough at a pinch. A proper pressure bandage is a more ideal solution, as it will apply the right amount of pressure to the wound without cutting off blood flow.
It is actually possible to buy a specialised snake bite bandage and keep it in reserve – some Australian pharmacies carry them. But as a general rule, a pressure bandage from the nearest medical kit is generally the most effective and readily available solution.
What not to do for a snake bite
There are many older, well known first aid myths about what to do for a snake bite that used to be common snake bite treatments but have now been proved to be ineffective and quite dangerous. They should not be used under any circumstances. In many cases, these treatments can cause considerably more harm than the actual snake bite.
- Don’t apply a tourniquet – In most cases, tying a tourniquet (a rope or cord used to cut-off blood flow) around a bitten limb is largely ineffective at preventing the spread of venom. In many cases, tourniquets have been tied so tightly around a bitten limb that doctors needed to amputate the limb by the time the victim reached medical aid.
- Don’t try to suck the venom out – Scientific tests have shown attempts to suck out venom generally remove less than one-thousandth of the venom. It can also cause infection and even necrosis in the wound (death of the surrounding tissue). And in the process, you can seriously poison yourself – even if you don’t swallow, snake venom can do a lot of harm to your mouth.
- Don’t cut the wound to drain blood from the area – Quite apart from draining very little venom (which often spreads through the lymph system rather than the bloodstream), the cut itself can cause significant harm and is at significant risk of infection.