Preventing and treating snake bite

"Always carry a flagon of whiskey in case of snakebite and furthermore always carry a small snake."
    - W.C. Fields

No, seriously now - it is vital to have good knowledge of indigenous snake species. Although my country of origin has no poisonous snakes, my adopted country does. Before you head off into the wilds (or even your back garden!), be aware of what might be out there.

Some snake bites (among them those of the timber rattlesnake and krait) should never be incised or bitten. Recent research has proved that cutting the wound can cause more harm in the long run, and sucking poison directly from the wound can have a negative effect on the first-aider. Similarly, applying ice to many snake bites is not recommended. Find out what snakes you are likely to encounter and how to treat their bites. Learn how to identify the local snakes, which treatments are best, and be prepared, in good Boy Scout tradition.

When travelling in areas where you know that poisonous snakes are likely to live, proper clothing (stout boots, socks and thick trousers) are a good first line of defence against snake bites. As prevention is better than cure, it is advisable not to disturb or attack a snake if you encounter one - most snakes will be more afraid of you and will retreat without attacking.

Many bites, even those of poisonous snakes, do not contain venom. Some snakes can control whether they inject their venom, and how much. Again, advance knowledge and preparation are key to successful treatment. The venom of different species also varies in its effects - some act directly on the nervous system, others may affect local tissues.

First Aid

You may want to obtain packs of antivenom if they are available, and familiarise yourself with their use before embarking on your journey. The "Sawyer Pump Extractor", may be used to suck venom from the bite area. (Apparently these pumps are widely available in the USA at department stores for a small outlay, and can remove up to 40% of the venom, if applied swiftly.)

When applying first aid, the victim (whether yourself or another member of your party) should remain calm and quiet, and preferably, immobile. A panicking patient's heart rate will increase, spreading the toxin throughout the body. If poison extraction is called for, use the pump to remove as much venom as possible. Apply the correct antivenom if you have it.

In most cases, a fairly tight crepe bandage or elastic strapping around the affected limb (ideally covering the bite area and toward the heart) will reduce the chance that the venom can spread. Do not tie too tightly, as you would a tourniquet. The victim should be transferred to medical facilities as quickly as is reasonable. If possible, call ahead to alert them of the situation, and ensure that they have appropriate treatment facilities - this is another good reason for having good knowledge of local species.

In brief

One Australian hospital issues these guidelines for treating bites:

  1. Keep the patient still and reassure them.
  2. Maintain vital functions, if imperilled (e.g. "ABC")
  3. Immediately apply a pressure immobilisation bandage.
  4. Try and maintain the patient as still as possible and bring transport to them.
  5. Always seek medical help at the earliest opportunity.
  6. If the snake has been killed, bring it with the patient, but do not waste time, risk further bites and delay application of pressure bandage and splint by trying to kill the snake.
  7. Do not wash the wound.
  8. Do not use a tourniquet.
  9. Do not cut or suck the wound.
  10. Do not give alcohol to the patient.
  11. Do not give food and only non-alcoholic clear fluids may be used for drinks.

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