First aid

Updated 30 January 2018

Snake bites in children

Snake bite is uncommon in South Africa.


Although there are more than 3,500 known species of snakes in the world, only 200 are poisonous to humans.

It's every mother's fear that her child will be bitten by a poisonous snake, but in Africa, snake bite is actually quite rare, and death from snake bite even more uncommon.

Most of the snakes around your home are not poisonous, and, even if they are, poison isn't always injected with the bite.

The type of poison, and the effects on the person bitten depend on the species of snake, and the size and general health of the person.

The types of snakes that can cause problems in South Africa are:

  • Adders. Adder poison, or venom, causes local tissue death. This results in massive local swelling and a lot of pain.
  • Cobras and mambas. These snakes have venom which causes muscle paralysis, which means that the person cannot breathe, and their heart cannot pump. The poison usually takes effect within half to one hour.
  • Boomslang. This is a rare bite. The venom will cause severe generalised bleeding within 48 hours.

What happens in snake bite?
About 20 percent of bites by poisonous snakes do not result in venom being injected.

In the rest, the severity of the reaction to the venom depends on many different things:

Related to the victim:

  • The age of the person
  • The general health of the person
  • The size of the person

Related to the snake:

  • The species of snake
  • The condition of the venom glands
  • The condition of the fangs

Related to the bite:

  • The number of bites
  • The location of the bites
  • The depth of the bites
  • The amount of venom injected

The speed and efficiency of the initial treatment of the bite is also important in determining the outcome of snake bite.

What to do if your child has been bitten

  • Look for marks to make sure that the child has been bitten.
  • If possible, find the snake and kill it for identification. Take it to the hospital or doctor when you take the child.
  • Always seek medical attention, preferably in the emergency department of your nearest hospital.
  • The most likely snake to have bitten your child is the puff adder since they are slow-moving. This is a fat, brown snake with a triangular head, with yellow stripes and spots on its body. For this type of bite, do not use a tourniquet. Antivenom is not usually needed unless the child is under the age of two, or they are a long way from hospital.
  • If you know that the bite is from a cobra or mamba, use a tourniquet. The child will need antivenom on arrival at hospital.
  • Cutting or sucking the wound, or using alternative remedies, are useless. Don't do it.
  • If a snake spits into your child's eyes, wash the eyes with large amounts of water, preferably by holding their head under a running tap. Do this before taking the child to hospital, since it will get rid of most of the poison. Once in hospital, the eyes will be washed further, often with diluted antivenom.

General first aid measures include lying the child down and immobilising the part of the body which has been bitten. Pressure should be applied at the site of the bite.

A tourniquet should be placed above the bite if possible. You should be able to insert a finger gently between the tourniquet and the skin.

You can use a belt, a broad strap, or the rubber tourniquet supplied with any snake-bite kit. It must be put on around the thigh or upper arm, above the bite.

A tourniquet can only be used for one and a half hours, during which time it must be released for a few seconds every 15 to 30 minutes. Do not use a tourniquet if:

  • The bite occurred more than an hour previously.
  • There is a large amount of local swelling or pain.
  • The child was bitten by a puff adder.


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