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Updated 23 July 2014

Snakebite

Snake bites are seldom fatal, but they can cause permanent injury.

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Summary

  • Snake bites are seldom fatal, but they can cause permanent injury.
  • First aid centres on keeping the person calm and applying a pressure bandage to the bite site.
  • Bites can be prevented by taking care to avoid snakes when in the outdoors.

What causes snake bite?
Most snakes are not venomous. Venomous snake bites are seldom fatal, but they can cause permanent injury to the affected limb.

Snakes which can cause problems in South Africa are adders, cobras, mambas, boomslang and vine snakes. Seventy percent of snake bites are by puff adders because they are one of the fastest striking snakes. They also often lie still and are therefore easily trampled on.

Recovery from a bite is influenced by several factors, including the amount of venom injected, the site and depth of the bite, and the health, size and age of the person. The type of first aid given and time it takes to receive medical treatment also play a role.

What are the symptoms of snake bite?
Symptoms depend on the type of venom injected:

  • Adder venom is toxic to tissue, especially blood vessels. It causes extreme pain, swelling and blistering. An untreated bite may cause death from blood loss, dehydration and secondary infection.
  • Mamba and cobra venom are toxic to the nervous system. Symptoms include "pins and needles", dizziness, poor co-ordination, slurred speech, excessive salivation and drooping eyelids. This is followed by difficulty breathing.
  • Boomslang and vine snake venom are toxic to blood cells, and interfere with blood clotting. Early symptoms include headaches, nausea, diarrhoea, lethargy, mental disorientation, bruising and bleeding at the site and all body openings.

Get help immediately if you have been bitten, unless you are absolutely certain that the snake is non-venomous.

First aid for snake bite
Don't:

  • Use antivenom except in a hospital environment.
  • Cut and suck the wound
  • Apply a tourniquet
  • Give anything to eat or drink
  • Rub potassium permanganate into the wound or soak the limb in home remedies
  • Try to kill the snake

Do:

  • Get everyone away from the snake.
  • Try to obtain a clear description of the snake.
  • Try to stay calm. Fear and anxiety increase heart rate, and thus the spread of venom throughout the body.
  • Wrap a crepe or pressure bandage firmly around the bite area, covering the entire limb (from fingertip to armpit; from toe to groin). Apply hand pressure at the bite until a bandage or similar fabric can be obtained.
  • Keep the person as still as possible and immobilise the affected limb by binding splints (e.g. straight branches) to either side of the limb.
  • Raise the limb to slow the blood flow.
  • If a snake spits into the eyes, wash the eyes with large amounts of water, preferably by holding the head under a running tap. If water is not available, use any fluid (even urine) not harmful to the eyes.
  • Observe the person and record the symptoms and the time taken to appear.

Can snake bite be prevented?
You can help prevent snake bite as follows:

  • Never try to catch or kill snakes
  • Watch where you step. Step on top of, not over, logs or rocks. Stick to footpaths. Wear boots and long trousers in the bush. Use a torch when you walk outdoors at night.
  • Don't put your hand into holes in the ground or under objects when lifting them.
  • Stay away from dead snakes - many fake death.
  • If you see a snake, stand dead still, then move away very slowly.
 
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