It is now Spring, and snakes across Australia, are coming out of hibernation: hungry and looking to strike. Statistics inform us that Australia has some 140 species of land snake, and around 32 species of sea snakes have been recorded in Australian waters. Whilst there is a common belief that Australia has some of the most venomous snakes in the world, research shows being bitten by a snake is uncommon within Australia. The good news: a death from a snakebite is very rare.
For those unlucky few people who collapse after venom enters their bloodstream, a bystander can perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) which is likely to save them, and provide more chances to get to the hospital for vital treatment.
Although many will arrive at the hospital with a suspected snakebite; many do not turn out to have an envenomation (the venom enters the bloodstream).
In more than 90% of cases people are bitten by a non-venomous snake, venom is not injected when the snake bites (known as a “dry bite”) or are not even bitten by a snake (known as a “stick” bite).
Analysis of about 1,548 cases of suspected snakebites from all around Australia, has shown there were on average just under 100 snake envenomation’s a year: with about two deaths a year.
The most common snakebites were from brown snakes, then tiger snakes and red-bellied black snakes. Brown snakes were responsible for 40% of envenomation’s. Collapsing, then having a heart attack out of hospital was the most common cause of death (ten out of 23), and most deaths were from brown snakes.
Venomous bites are when the snake bites and releases venom (poison) into a wound. Snake venom contains poisons which are designed to stun, numb, or kill other animals.
Symptoms of a venomous bite include:
- severe pain around the bite, this might come on later
- swelling, bruising or bleeding from the bite
- bite marks on the skin (these might be obvious puncture wounds or small scratches)
- swollen and tender glands in the armpit or groin of the limb that has been bitten
- tingling, stinging, burning or abnormal feelings of the skin
- feeling anxious
- nausea (feeling sick) or vomiting (being sick)
- dizziness, blurred vision, headache
- breathing difficulties, problems swallowing
- stomach pain, irregular heartbeat
- muscle weakness, confusion, collapse
- blood oozing from the site or gums
- paralysis, coma or death (in the most severe cases)
Identification of venomous snakes can be made from venom present on clothing or the skin using a so called ‘venom detection’ kit. For this reason, do not wash or suck the bite or discard clothing.
It’s not recommended to kill the snake for purposes of identification, because medical services do not rely on visual identification of the snake species. Antivenom is available for all venomous Australian snake bites.
First aid for snake bites
For all snake bites,
- Check the area and ensure it is safe to proceed
- Provide emergency care including cardiopulmonary resuscitation(CPR) if needed.
- Call triple zero (000) for an ambulance.
- Apply a pressure immobilisation bandage and keep the person calm and as still as possible until medical help arrives.
- Avoid washing the bite area because any venom left on the skin can help identify the snake.
DO NOT apply a tourniquet, cut the wound or attempt to suck the venom out.
Pressure immobilisation bandage
A pressure immobilisation bandage is recommended for anyone bitten by a venomous snake. This involves firmly bandaging the area of the body involved, such as the arm or leg, and keeping the person calm and still until medical help arrives.
Follow these steps to apply a pressure immobilisation bandage:
- First put a pressure bandage over the bite itself. It should be tight and you should not be able to easily slide a finger between the bandage and the skin.
- Then use a heavy crepe or elasticised roller bandage to immobilize the whole limb. Start just above the fingers or toes of the bitten limb, and move upwards on the limb as far as the body. Splint the limb including joints on either side of the bite.
- Keep the person and the limb completely at rest. If possible, mark the site of the bite on the bandage with a pen.
A guide to pressure immobilisation bandages can be found on the Australian Resuscitation Council website.
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