First Aid Tips: How to treat snake bites?

With warmer weather setting in, snakes in the ACT are emerging from their winter hibernation, looking for food and for mates. We are home to several beautiful parks and bushwalks, and it is only fair to be vigilant and ready when heading outdoors where we might encounter snakes.

Snakes in ACT

Although they are usually secretive by nature, snakes will quickly try to retreat if not provoked. However, if stepped upon or otherwise provoked they will defend themselves vigorously. Humans are not their prey species, so they have nothing to gain by attacking us without cause.

According to the Australian Museum, Australia has nearly 200 known species of snake (of which 32 species are sea snakes). Only 25 of the 200 species are considered
potentially deadly.

About 8 venomous species are known to inhabit the ACT, of which around five are potentially dangerously venomous.

Venomous snake species known to occur in the ACT include:

  • Eastern or Common Brown Snake
  • Red-bellied Black Snake
  • Mainland Tiger Snake
  • Highland Copper Snake
  • White-lipped Snake
  • Small-eyed Snake
  • Black-headed or Dwyer’s Snake
  • Eastern Bandy-bandy
  • There have also been suggestions that the Common Death Adder might rarely occur in remote areas of the ACT, but this does not seem to have been verified

The ‘King Brown’ Snake, nowadays known more correctly as the Mulga Snake, does NOT occur in the ACT. A very large Eastern Brown Snake is not a King Brown snake, but a completely different species!

The Eastern Brown Snake is the most seen snake in the Canberra region, including in the suburbs. They have even been sighted, as shown in this report from ABC News right in Civic.

Eastern Brown Snake Image
Adult Eastern Brown Snake – image from Peter Mirtschin, Venom Supplies, Tanunda SA.

Snakes occasionally invite themselves into your gardens. At that point, the best solution is to stay clear and follow the steps here. (From the ACT Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate – Environment)

As Canberrans begin to do more bushwalks in spring and summer, care must be taken walking through high grass, in rural areas, and in suburban areas close to grassland, bushland and rivers.

When snakebites do happen, the snake might not be seen, and most people are unable to accurately identify snake species. Therefore, all snakebites should always be treated seriously, even potentially fatal, and medical aid should be sought urgently.

Types of Snake Bites

Venomous Snake Bites

Because there are so many snake species in Australia, it is not possible for non-experts to be able to identify every type of snake. There is often great variability in colour, even with the same species, in most cases, all the victims see of the snake that bit them – if they see it at all – is a brown-coloured snake disappearing quickly into the scrub.

Our ‘top 10’ Australian elapid (‘front-fanged’) snakes produce some of the most toxic snake venom in the world.

Dry Snake Bites

In some cases, depending on the species of snake, no venom is injected. This is known as a ‘dry bite’. Dry bites can still be still painful and will cause swelling and redness in the area the bite occurred. As there is no way of telling if it was a dry bite, snake bites should always be treated as if the venom has been injected. It is better to wait in hospital to see if symptoms develop rather than to be a long way from the hospital!

Signs & Symptoms

Signs of a snake bite are not always visible. In some cases, the patient may not have felt anything, or may not even be aware that they have been bitten by a snake. Symptoms may not appear for an hour or more after the person has been bitten.

Depending on the type of snake, signs and symptoms may include some or all of the following:

  • Initially there may be scratches, small cuts, bite marks (single or in pairs) at the bite site, or no obvious marks at all. There may also be pain and swelling.
  • Up to 1 hour after the bite, again depending on the species, there may be headache, vomiting, and brief periods of low blood pressure. There may also be episodes of confusion, and faintness or dizziness. With Brown Snakes in particular, there may also be bleeding or oozing from the bite site or from the gums.
  • Other symptoms at this stage may also include abdominal pain, double or blurred vision, difficulty in speaking or swallowing, and limb weakness or paralysis. In some cases, there may be difficulty in breathing. Beyond an hour, symptoms can become much more serious, and urgent medical attention must be sought at a major hospital.

First Aid for Snake Bites

When an Australian venomous snake injects venom through a bite, the venom does not immediately travel into the bloodstream. Instead, it travels first through the lymphatic system, before eventually entering the bloodstream.

As soon as possible after the bite, apply a pressure bandage with immobilisation of the patient, as described in this St John Ambulance Australia fact sheet.

If a person collapses from a snakebite, becomes unconscious and is NOT breathing, you must immediately provide CPR, as shown in this St John Ambulance Australia fact sheet.

What to do with Snake Bites Infographic
What to do with Snake Bites Infographic – image from St John Ambulance Australia (ACT) Inc

Knowing how to administer the correct first aid will give you confidence in managing a snake bite if it should happen. This season, get yourself prepared by enrolling in one of the
St John first aid courses.

How to avoid being bitten by a snake?

Prevention is the best cure. Throughout the snake season, you must always be aware of your environment when out walking in nature. Keep a neat garden to avoid snakes hiding in it.

The most important thing to remember is – DO NOT TRY TO KILL, CHASE OR INTERFERE WITH A SNAKE, as this can easily lead to a bite. Stand still and do not move, and the chances are that the snake will move away from you.

First Aid Tips: How to treat snake bites?

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