Snake Bite

It can be difficult to know if a bite from a snake is dangerous or not. This article explains the best first aid treatment depending on the type of snake involved.

It’s important to be aware that bites from snakes can cause a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) in some people. Learn more about first aid treatment for severe allergic reactions in the ‘anaphylaxis’ section below.

Snake Bites

Australia has some 140 species of land snake, and around 32 species of sea snakes have been recorded in Australian waters.

About 100 Australian snakes are venomous, although only 12 are likely to inflict a wound that could kill you. These include Taipans, Brown snakes, Tiger snakes, Death Adders, Black snakes, Copperhead snakes, Rough Scaled snakes as well as some sea snakes.

Most snake bites happen when people try to kill or capture them. If you come across a snake, don’t panic. Back away to a safe distance and let it move away. Snakes often want to escape when disturbed.

All snakes found in Tasmania are venomous.

All snake bites must be treated as potentially life-threatening. If you are bitten by a snake, call triple zero (000) for an ambulance.

Different types of snake bites

Dry bites

A dry bite is when the snake strikes but no venom is released. Dry bites will be painful and may cause swelling and redness around the area of the snake bite.

Because you can’t tell if a snake’s bite is a dry bite always assume that you have been injected with venom, and manage the bite as a medical emergency. Once medically assessed, there is usually no need for further treatment, such as with antivenoms. Many snake bites in Australia do not result in envenomation, and so they can be managed without antivenom.

Venomous bites

Venomous bites are when the snake bites and releases venom (poison) into a wound. Snake venom contains poisons which are designed to stun, numb, or kill other animals.

Symptoms of a venomous bite include:

  • severe pain around the bite, this might come on later
  • swelling, bruising or bleeding from the bite
  • bite marks on the skin (these might be obvious puncture wounds or almost invisible small scratches)
  • swollen and tender glands in the armpit or groin of the limb that has been bitten
  • tingling, stinging, burning or abnormal feelings of the skin
  • feeling anxious
  • nausea (feeling sick) or vomiting (being sick)
  • dizziness
  • blurred vision
  • headache
  • breathing difficulties
  • problems swallowing
  • stomach pain
  • irregular heartbeat
  • muscle weakness
  • confusion
  • blood oozing from the site or gums
  • collapse
  • paralysis, coma or death (in the most severe cases)

In Australia, there are approximately two deaths a year from venomous snake bites.

Snake identification

Identification of venomous snakes can be made from venom present on clothing or the skin using a so called ‘venom detection’ kit. For this reason do not wash or suck the bite or discard clothing.

It’s not recommended to kill the snake for purposes of identification, because medical services do not rely on visual identification of the snake species.

Antivenom is available for all venomous Australian snake bites.

First aid for snake bites

For all snake bites, provide emergency care including cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) if needed. Call triple zero (000) for an ambulance. Apply a pressure immobilisation bandage and keep the person calm and as still as possible until medical help arrives.

Avoid washing the bite area because any venom left on the skin can help identify the snake.

DO NOT apply a tourniquet, cut the wound or attempt to suck the venom out.

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)

Read about an overview of CPR

For printable charts, see St John Ambulance Australia’s first aid resuscitation procedures (DRSABCD) poster, as well as their quick guide to first aid management of bites and stings.

Pressure immobilisation bandage

A pressure immobilisation bandage is recommended for anyone bitten by a venomous snake. This involves firmly bandaging the area of the body involved, such as the arm or leg, and keeping the person calm and still until medical help arrives.

Follow these steps to apply a pressure immobilisation bandage: 

  • First put a pressure bandage over the bite itself. It should be tight and you should not be able to easily slide a finger between the bandage and the skin.
  • Then use a heavy crepe or elasticised roller bandage to immobilize the whole limb. Start just above the fingers or toes of the bitten limb, and move upwards on the limb as far as the body. Splint the limb including joints on either side of the bite.
  • Keep the person and the limb completely at rest. If possible, mark the site of the bite on the bandage with a pen.

A guide to pressure immobilisation bandages can be found on the Australian Resuscitation Council website.

Anaphylactic shock

Snake bites can be painful. Occasionally some people have a severe allergic reaction to being bitten. In cases of severe allergic reaction, the whole body can react within minutes to the bite which can lead to anaphylactic shock. Anaphylactic shock is very serious and can be fatal.

Symptoms of anaphylactic shock may include:

  • difficult or noisy breathing
  • difficulty talking and/or hoarse voice
  • a swollen tongue
  • persistent dizziness or collapse
  • swelling or tightness in the throat
  • pale and floppy (young children)
  • wheeze or persistent cough

Call triple zero (000) for an ambulance. If the person has a ‘personal action plan’ to manage a known severe allergy, they may need assistance to follow their plan. This may include administering adrenaline to the person via an autoinjector (such as an Epipen®) if one is available.

The Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy recommends that for a severe allergic reaction adrenaline is the initial treatment. For further information, visit the Choosing Wisely Australia website.

The St John Ambulance Australia first aid fact sheet for bites and stings can be found on their website. For more information on anaphylaxis, including setting up a personal action plan, go to www.allergy.org.au.

Sources:

Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA) (Allergic reactions to bites and stings) 

St John Ambulance Australia (Bites and stings – Quick guide to first aid management, PDF) 

Allergy and Anaphylaxis Australia (What is anaphylaxis) 

NSW Office of Environment & Heritage (Snakes) 

Choosing Wisely Australia (Recommendations) 

St John Ambulance Australia (DRSABCD action plan PDF) 

St John Ambulance Australia (Severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) – managing a severe allergic reaction PDF) 

Australian Resuscitation Council (Pressure bandage) 

Queensland Government (Bites and Stings) 

Australian Prescriber (Snake bite: a current approach to management) 

St John Australia (Snake bite), Medical Journal of Australia (Snakebite in Australia – a practical approach to diagnosis and treatment)

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