Adventuring into the great outdoors can be thrilling, invigorating, and the perfect opportunity to escape from the daily grind. However, along with the awe-inspiring beauty of nature, there are also hazards to be wary of, including the potential risk of a snakebite. Being equipped with the right knowledge on how to handle such a situation could mean the difference between a minor hiccup in your journey and a major health crisis.
Identifying a Snakebite
In most bites we have no idea what snake bit the victim. We also have very few medical doctors – about three throughout the country and two are retired – that are good with snake identification. Few snakebites show as two distinct fang punctures and even if they do, it is no indication as the severity of a bite. Many fatal bites have a small scratch. As a rule, medical doctors give little attention to the actual bite marks. Symptoms vary depending on the type of snake, but may include pain and swelling at the bite site, difficulty breathing, blurred vision, nausea, and fainting. If you’ve been bitten and are uncertain if it was a snake, it’s always better to err on the side of caution and follow the steps below.
- Stay Calm: As with any emergency, panic can exacerbate the situation. The heart rate initially has zero effect on the spread of venom as it is largely through the lymphatics. But keeping still is a good idea as muscle movement stimulates the lymphatics.
- Immobilise the Bitten Area: If possible, try to keep the affected limb at or below heart level In cytotoxic bites, like Puff Adder bites, the pain is unbearable and keeping the affected limb below heart level will cause severe and unnecessary pain. It is best to elevate the affected limb to just above the heart (See Complete Guide to Snakebite in Southern Africa and Snake and Snakebite in Southern Africa. Avoid any unnecessary movement which could accelerate the spread of venom.
- Remove Constrictive Items: Jewellery, watches, or tight clothing should be removed near the bite site as these could constrict swelling.
- Do Not Attempt to Suck Out the Venom: Despite what old Western movies suggest, trying to suck the venom out of a snakebite is ineffective and can cause more harm.
- Do Not Apply a Tourniquet: This old advice has been debunked. Cutting off blood flow can cause more harm to the area and does not significantly slow venom distribution.
Seek Medical Attention
After initial first aid, seeking immediate medical attention should be your top priority. If possible, call local emergency services or have someone nearby do so. While waiting for medical help:
- Try to Identify the Snake: If you can do so safely, try to remember the snake’s colour, shape, size, and any distinctive features. It would be more beneficial to get a photograph and WhatsApp it to a competent herpetologist for identification – not Facebook)!
- Monitor Vital Signs: Keep an eye on heart rate, breathing rate, and consciousness level. If the person bitten starts to lose consciousness, perform CPR.(CPR does not form part of first aid for snakebite first aid as the neurotoxic venoms affect breathing, not the heart rate. If there is no purse – sure – but I have studied thousands of snakebites and have never seen a single case where it was necessary. Not even in hospital, unless the patient is about to die. Rescue breathing, being it mouth to mouth with a pocket mouth or BVM, could well be life-saving if the patient stops breathing).
About one in ten patients are treated with anti-venom – the other nine do not need it. In a study at Ngwelazana Hospital over 5 years 96 out of 879 patients were treated with anti-venom. It’s important to understand that not all snakebites result in envenomation, and not all snakes are venomous. However, any snakebite should be treated as a potential medical emergency.
Ultimately, the best way to handle a snakebite is to prevent one from happening. Be aware of your surroundings, understand the types of snakes in the area you’re exploring, avoid tall grass and rocky areas where snakes may be hiding, and never attempt to handle a wild snake. Wearing appropriate clothing such as long pants and boots can also offer an extra layer of protection.
Though the odds of encountering a snakebite while adventuring outdoors are relatively low, being equipped with the knowledge to respond effectively can provide peace of mind. Remember that maintaining calmness, immobilising the bitten area, and seeking immediate medical attention are crucial steps to managing such an emergency. Adventure smart, stay safe, and let the great outdoors continue to inspire and rejuvenate.