Snake Bites and How to Avoid & Treat Them
By: Mike Jerrard
Nothing brings fear to a hiker quite like the possibility of being bit by a poisonous snake. The fear of snakes goes back to the early days of man and that fear will no doubt continue to remain with us.
Snakes inhabit all continents except for Antarctica and species number over 3,000. Thankfully only around 15% of those are dangerous to humans. Although extreme caution should be exercised while hiking in areas where poisonous snakes are prevalent, the chances of actually being bitten and fatality are extremely low, especially in nations that have access to decent health care.
It is very hard to estimate the number of deaths that occur each year from poisonous snakes as it is not mandatory to report bites in many counties. Some reports however say that of about 2 million annual poisonous bites only about 25-50,000 deaths result. India reports the most deaths of any country with Southeast Asia and Sub Saharan Africa being the worst areas in the world when it comes to snake bite deaths.
Surprisingly countries like Australia which has more highly venomous snakes than any other only reports 2-4 deaths per year. This is due to the availability of emergency services and antivenom. Even with a population of over 300 million, the U.S. sees only 5-6 fatalities per year. Dogs, bees, and spiders all cause more deaths per year.
When it comes to being bitten, young males tend to be the group most affected and it is industrial plantations which offer higher probability of bites due to their tendency to attract the snake’s prey. Most snakes in the wild are shy and elusive and will go unnoticed. I can speak from experience that it takes a great deal of effort to find snakes. I have searched the deserts of Arizona, the Amazon Jungle, and across Australia for deadly snakes and struggle a great deal in getting photo opportunities. This is not to say that you shouldn’t take precautions because snakes are out there and getting bit could end your life or cause you a great deal of pain.
So what can you do to minimize your chances of bites while enjoying the great outdoors. Here are some tips:
Know Your Area
Know what poisonous snakes if any may be in your area and what habitats they prefer so as to avoid contact. Some snakes are only present for certain seasons or come out only at certain times of the day.
Know Your Snakes
Learn to identify poisonous snakes you may come across and learn the warning signs that they may be present such as tracks in the sand, rattling, or skin sheds. Know what their preferred prey is so that if you see a high density of that prey it may mean a high chance of seeing that snake. Also avoid attracting prey like mice or rabbits around your yard so as to not entice venomous snakes into your yard.
Having a good pair of pants and specially designed snake gaiters like Snakeprotex along with tough hiking boots can offer the best defense you need to stop a snake from puncturing your skin. Avoid sandals and shorts if you know you will be hiking through thick bush in snake country. In all my years hiking, I have only been bitten once and it was by a young cottonmouth. Thankfully it tagged me on my boot or I would have been in a lot of trouble as I was alone and had a good two hour hike back to my car. With venomous snakes, one misstep and one bite is all it takes to change your life. I choose to not test my luck any further these days and now always rely on Snakeprotex gaiters when hiking.
Also be equipped with a cell phone or hike with a companion that can get help should you be bitten.
Be aware of your surroundings. Avoid making footfalls where you cannot see what is underfoot, such as thick grass or over logs and rocks. Snakes are incredible at camouflaging themselves and even snakes like rattlesnakes may stay silent so it is always better to assume a snake can be present if it is the right time of season. Use a stick or hiking pole if you use one to probe thick areas of brush you will be going through so as to alert the snake to your presence. Most snakes will be quick to get out of your way. Remember that snakes can’t really hear sounds rather they sense vibrations so talking like you would do in bear country won’t help keep them away.
So What if You ARE Bitten
Sometimes it will be obvious that you have been bitten while some very poisonous snakes such as Australia’s brown snake can be quite painless. Look for puncture marks and signs of sudden nausea, headache, blurred vision respiratory weakness, or rash.
If you know you have been bitten try to take note of the species if possible but DO NOT attempt to catch the snake. Then proceed to follow these steps:
*Lay yourself down.
*Apply a bandage over bite site as soon as possible. Most bites will be on limbs.
*Apply a pressure bandage to the limb starting at the finger or toe tips and work your way up the limb as far as possible. Make sure it covers the bite site and is tight but not so much that it restricts blood supply to the limb
*Immobilize the bandage limb with splints and avoid any unnecessary movement to the area.
*Mark the bite site on the bandage as well as the time the bandage was applied and when bite occurred.
*Call for help and although you may know the emergency number in your country, be aware of the numbers in countries you are traveling in. In the U.S. 911 or 000 in Australia for example.
Should you be by yourself, try your best to not move. Hopefully you will have a cell signal to call for help, but if not you must try to assess your situation and circumstance to see if walking out is your only option. Try your best to yell for help or grab attention without moving.
*Stay Calm- Many bites are dry bites and no venom will have been injected into your bloodstream. Many snakes also prematurely expel venom before the actually bite occurs. This often happens in young male snakes….ok just a bit of humor there.
DO NOT wash the bite site – Venom will assist in identification so as to administer the correct antivenom
DO NOT cut the bite area or try to suck out venom
DO NOT use a tourniquet
Hopefully these tips will never have to be used but it is good to know what to do because you may be knowledgeable about snakes but a companion you are with or a fellow hiker may not be and you may be their only chance at making a full recovery. Also remember that accidents usually occur when you are least expecting them so one should allows be prepared with knowledge and a first aid kit should the need arise.