How to… survive a snakebite
1. Don’t get bit – This might seem obvious, but many victims of snakebites invite them by wearing the wrong clothes and/or acting recklessly while out walking. Appropriate clothing includes lined trousers (eg jeans), gaiters and high-lined boots. As a general rule leave no area of skin beneath the waist exposed. In terms of behaviour, do not overturn random logs or rocks as snakes frequently shelter under these and, if you are scrambling over rocky ledges, be mindful where you place your hands.
2. Stay calm – Sometimes a snakebite is unavoidable. If you do get bitten the first rule to remember is that you should remain calm. This isn’t just common sense. By entering a state of panic you increase your heartbeat and general blood circulation around the body – this in turn will increase the rate at which venom is distributed and/or exacerbate bleeding. Just keep in mind that the vast majority of snakebites are very slow acting and so you have plenty of time to seek medical assistance.
3. Don’t suck – A common myth is that by immediately sucking on the wound you are able to draw the venom out. While no doubt some of the venom would be extracted this way, you are really just trading one benefit for additional complications, such as necrosis (tissue death) of the bitten area as well as potential infection in your mouth. Further, by sucking on the bite you will heighten blood flow, increasing the bleed-out rate. It’s best to avoid using venom suction kits for the same reasons.
4. Clean the bite – If possible, prior to doing anything else bar calling for support, you should clean the wound with a delicate application of cold water. Importantly, you shouldn’t scrub or press heavily on the bitten area of skin as this will likely also lead to necrosis and increased blood loss. If this is done correctly then bleeding should stop after a minute or so. If the bleed out remains constant or is gushing, the snake has probably hit an artery – ignore this step and move straight on to the next.
5. Don’t use a tourniquet – Regardless of whether it’s a shallow or deep bite, do not use a tourniquet (tight bandage) on the wound. This will increase necrosis rapidly and, in severe cases, could even result in amputation of the limb. To stop serious bleeding, rather than a tourniquet, use a constriction band. A constriction band can be bought or fashioned out of cloth and will reduce blood flow rather than stopping it. This will both help to stem the bleeding and also slow the passage of the venom around the body.
6. Leave the snake – Lastly, don’t kill the snake. A widely held myth is that for a doctor to treat your bite they need to know which snake bit you, as that way they can administer the correct antivenom. This is false, with modern antivenom often polyvalent (ie it counters most venoms in a certain region). Further, by going after the snake you only waste time and make yourself vulnerable to additional bites. Simply back slowly away from the creature until at a safe distance and then head for help.
Getting a snakebite can be distressing, but if you ignore the myths and don’t panic, your survival chances are very high. Ensure you are well protected when trekking in areas where snakes are common. Be sure to tread carefully and stick to clear paths as much as you can. If you do get bitten, stay calm to keep your heart rate low and do not exacerbate the injury by sucking or applying excessive pressure to the wound. Finally, leave the environment as quickly as possible, avoiding additional confrontations. It’s also worth noting that many snakes are not even venomous, but it’s essential to get bites checked out just in case.