The Freaked-Out Person's Guide to Treating a Serious Snakebite

Fear of snakes is near the top of the list of human phobias, but this fear is mostly without foundation. Statistically, your fellow motorists are thousands of times more likely to cause you serious harm than a snake, and your family pet is more likely to bite you. Snakes are inoffensive creatures that go out of their way to avoid us; bites are a defensive rather than offensive reaction, and occur when a snake feels threatened.

Prevention is always better than cure, so the most important snake advice is this: leave them in peace if they're not bothering you. More people are bitten harassing these reptiles than are bitten by accidentally stepping on them. Trying to kill creatures that we fear or don't understand is an unfortunate human trait; in the case of snakes, it can literally come back to bite us. Footwear also plays an important part in deterring reptilian fangs - a sturdy pair of boots will offer a lot more protection than flimsy sandals.

Every survival book ever written seems to contain the following rather unhelpful suggestion regarding snakebite: keep calm. In practice, this almost never happens - the victim gets scared, the heart races, there's a tendency to sprint off in search of help, and in some cases full-blown panic sets in. Unfortunately, these typical reactions do little more than help speed the venom on its way to the heart, making the situation much worse.

A thorough understanding of snakebite statistics (and the extreme rarity of deaths) should help you stay calm if bitten by a snake. The odds of survival are very much in your favor. Even in Australia - which has some of the deadliest snakes on earth - death from snakebite is quite rare. Of over 2000 people bitten by snakes in Australia every year, only two or three die. In the US, about 7500 people suffer bites from venomous snakes annually, but only around 5 people die from them. Improved understanding of proper first aid treatment and quick access to medical assistance are two of the most important factors in reducing snakebite deaths.

The old 'cut, suck and tourniquet' method of snakebite first aid is a thing of the past. The modern method is to apply a firm pressure bandage to the bite site and along as much of the limb as possible. A 4-inch (10cm) wide crepe roller bandage from the first aid kit is excellent for the job. Once the bite itself is covered, continue wrapping the bandage up the limb in a spiral motion with firm, even pressure, and back down the limb again if the bandage is long enough. Use roughly the same amount of pressure as you would use to wrap a sprained ankle. The bandage must not be so firm that you are cutting off circulation to the limb.

The next step is to immobilize the limb with a splint. Any limb movement hastens the spread of venom through the body. Splint a bitten leg into a straight position. Splint forearms up to the elbow and then support the bitten arm with a sling. Use walking sticks, straight tree branches, inflatable sleeping mats or whatever is at hand as a splint. For bites to the torso or face, apply firm pressure only, using the palm of the hand. Victims should stay as still as possible, to slow the spread of the venom through the lymphatic system and bloodstream.

If you are wearing long trousers when bitten, just leave them on; the effort and movement involved in removing them will cause more venom to enter your bloodstream. Minimizing movement is vital both before and after the pressure bandage has been applied.

Staying composed when bitten by a snake is never easy, but you can take comfort from the fact that this pressure and immobilization treatment is extremely effective when administered without delay. If applied promptly and correctly, the prospect of serious illness or death from snakebite is very minimal.

So don't freak out about your snakebite - it's the car trip to the hospital that's more likely to kill you.

by Kevin Casey

Leave a Reply