How To Treat A Snakebite

If you live in a city, this might seem silly and trivial. You’re probably right, as long as you stay in the city’s cocoon. With lots of people having disposable income and access to air travel, it just might happen you go on a safari or visit a location that you might think of as safe from snakes but it really isn’t. One does go out of the hotel, sometimes. Well, some people do. If your local environment doesn’t necessitate the knowledge around snakebites, it’s still fun to know tidbits about the world and especially the long forgotten, but ever so important part, nature.

Only some snakes are very venomous and can cause the death of humans. Children are more at risk because of their lower body weight. The toxins often contain substances that break down cells (including blood cells) or that attack the heart and nervous system. Some can lower blood pressure. In Belgium and the Netherlands there is only one snake species in the wild that is venomous, the vipera berus, or the common European adder/viper. Some people keep snakes as exotic pets, and some of these can be venomous. Against some of the toxins there exists an antidote. These are available at local anti-toxin centers or at the animal departments of zoos.

Sidebar: The Difference Between Venomous And Poisonous

Where colloquially we tend to use venomous and poisonous interchangably, medically we differentiate. An animal is venomous when it has a specialized gland that produces a toxic substance, that can cause injury or death. For example, a venomous snake. An animal is poisonous when it produces a toxic that causes injury or death when it is absorbed or ingested. For example, a poisonous frog. So, if the snake bites you and a toxin is released, it is venomous. If you eat a frog and the toxin goes in with it, it is poisonous. Or, in case of the frog, if you touch it and the toxin gets on your skin, which then goes through the skin inside you, it’s a poisonous frog.

What do you observe

Two rows of teethmarks or two small pointy/puncture wounds.

Sometimes the skin colors blue or even green and purple.

Pain and swelling at the site of the wound.

In case of a venomous species, the patient may:

  • feel sick and vomits.
  • sweat and produce excessive saliva.
  • be thirsty.
  • have visual distortions (fuzziness, double vision).
  • convulse.
  • have distorted sensations or get paralyzed.
  • have a drop in blood pressure and go into shock.

What To Do

If you don’t know if the snake is venomous, always treat it like it is and call the emergency services.

Remember or take a picture of the snake. This will help doctors and experts to identify the snake and select a correct antidote.

Help the patient to lie down, calm down and remain motionless. This will slow down the spreading of the toxin.

Remove jewelry, watches and/or tight fitting clothing. This can obstruct blood flow due to swelling. Keep the patient as motionless as possible while doing this (see above).

Monitor the patients breathing and consciousness. Provide all information to the medics. You may have to perform CPR before they arrive.

What Not To Do

Make sure you are not bit. Your own safety is the priority.

Do not try to catch the snake. This is the work of an expert. Just note it’s characteristics, or take a picture.

Do not use a tourniquette to try and slow down the spreading of the toxin, i.e. do not tie of the limb. The risk of amputation due to dead tissue is too great. Tourniquettes are for people who had training in how to use these tools.

Do not cut the wound to make it bleed more. It does not slow down the toxin. It only enlarges the wound.

Do not suck out the toxin with your mouth or a pump. The amount you can remove is limited.