With lockdown easing up and botanical gardens and parks open for hiking, people are active and getting some fresh air in the outdoors.
With around 175 different snake species in southern Africa, there is a chance that, while hiking, one may encounter a snake. While very few fatal snakebites are recorded in South Africa - around 12 per year - it is important to reduce the risk of a snakebite and to know what to do if somehow is bitten.
Nine out of ten serious snakebites result in cytotoxic symptoms - pain, gradual swelling, blistering, and in some instances tissue damage. Most of our fatal bites are from Black Mamba and Cape Cobra envenomation - the venom of these snakes is predominantly neurotoxic, causing progressive weakness that ultimately compromises breathing.
One good way to avoid snake bite is to avoid trekking areas that are known to be snake territory especially at night time. You need to keep in mind that snakes are really active when darkness falls. So it is also a good idea to choose going through open trails and to avoid bushes and loose rocks. When hiking, stay on footpaths, watch where you are walking, step on solid rocks and logs, be careful where you put your hands, either when stopping for a rest or when gripping onto rocks to climb up or down inclines. The majority of snakebites are well below the knee and wearing proper snake gaiters will provide good protection against most snakebites. Modern snake gaiters are light (around 400g a pair), flexible and comfortable, even on long hikes.
Be prepared for emergencies when planning a hike, make sure you have the necessary emergency numbers on your cell phone and remember the international emergency number 112 - works even if you do not have airtime or network. As most snakebites are from snakes with cytotoxic venom, there is little one can do other than safely getting the victim to the nearest medical facility. Meeting a private ambulance halfway often makes sense as paramedics are better equipped to assist victims.
Logic and common sense are the two main things that you should be equipped with in order to really understand how to deal with snakebites.First you must know how to diagnose snakebite. It is important that you know it is indeed a snake bite or not. If you saw what happened then you can be sure about it and then go to the next step. In case you were not around when a person was bitten you should look for signs of the two fangs bite mark. Other signs include swelling and moderate to severe pain in the bite area. You should also look for skin discoloration, which twitching skin on the area. The victim could also suffer from different symptoms like vomiting, nausea, dizziness, slurred speech sweating and abnormality of mental condition. If the signs and symptoms are present, then it is indeed a snake bite and you should proceed.
Get immediate help. Then the victim should be kept calm and very still. Do not allow the victim to walk and it would be better to use a splint in the bite area. Also make sure that the bitten part of the body is positioned lower than the victim’s chest. Place a constricting band or bandage about two to four centimetres over the bite area. Make sure that the bandage is not too tightly placed though. The main idea for the bandage is to prevent the venom from travelling to lymphatic system and the bloodstream.
It would also be better if the snake can be identified. Clean the wound or snake bite area with soap and water is the next step. Do not panic! This is a golden rule and keep monitoring the victim for changes in the wound area.
What not to do: Never try to cut open the wound. Do not, for any reason suck the venom out. The venom could seep through any lacerated or damaged tissues inside your mouth and you will be in real danger. Applying any ointment is also a big mistake. Don’t give the patient any alcohol. Use soap and water to clean the wound.
Medical Management: Often venom is not actually passed in a bite, additionally there is a big chance that the snake is not a poisonous kind. It is also important to understand that even if the snake is not poisonous, hospital management is still necessary because the wound would still need to be treated and tetanus vaccine would need to be administered. (Depending on how long ago you have had the vaccine.) Many are surprised to learn that you can get tetanus from a snake bite.
Antivenom is required if the snake has been proven to be poisonous and the venom had been injected. It is important to keep in mind though that not all hospitals may have readily available antivenin. This knowledge about first aid can really save the victim, especially if there is a need to buy time between the time of the bite and the time the victim reaches the hospital.
Although being bitten by a snake is somewhat rare, if would still be great if you know how to take some precautionary measures in order to decrease the chances of a bite. And if the dreaded snake bite, does occur, remember that first aid is important.
A dead snake can still cause damage. It can still carry venom that can still cause serious damages because of the snake’s possible reflex action after dying.
* With thanks to Martin Rudman from Rollingstonereptiles in Klerksdorp.