A snakebite is an injury with possible poisoning consequences caused by the bite of a snake.
What is a snake bite
In the case of a snake bite, the first thing that matters is whether the bite came from a venomous snake or from a non-venomous snake. In addition, a distinction can be made between a poison bite and a dry bite. A dry bite is a bite from a venomous snake that does not release venom into the wound. On average, every second bite from a venomous snake is a dry bite. Dry bites are used by the snakes to deter the enemy without losing their venom, which is valuable for hunting. See biotionary for What does CPP stand for.
Snakes are very shy and nocturnal animals. With their very sensitive sensory organs, snakes register approaching people very quickly and usually flee, so that there is very little contact between humans and snakes.
It is estimated that there are around 2.5 million snake bites per year worldwide. About 400,000 of these are poisonous bites. About 20,000 people die each year from snakebite poisoning. Most snake bites occur during the summer months.
On the one hand because the snakes are particularly active at this time and on the other hand because many people spend their free time in nature at this time of the year. Most venomous snakebites occur in Australia, India, North and South America. But a bite from the adder native to Germany can also lead to symptoms of poisoning.
Symptoms, Ailments & Signs
Symptoms of poisoning from a venomous snake bite differ depending on the type of venom. There are poisons that act on the nervous system, on the blood, on the tissues or on the muscles. The amount of poison injected and the patient’s state of health are also decisive for the severity of the symptoms.
The first symptoms immediately after the snake bite are redness and pain at the site of the bite. Swelling and bleeding can also occur at the bite wound. Serious tissue damage can develop over the next few minutes to hours. Neurotoxic snake venoms affect the nervous system. Symptoms such as dizziness, thirst, headache or visual disturbances may indicate nervous system intoxication.
If the injected poison is a hemotoxic poison, i.e. a poison that attacks the blood cells, bleeding can occur anywhere in the body due to blood clotting disorders. Muscle paralyzing toxins cause shortness of breath, weakness, or loss of coordination. Any venomous snake bite can also cause nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. Some species of snakes (such as cobras) spit their venom. If it gets into your eyes, those affected can go blind. Bites from non-poisonous snakes can also be life-threatening due to wound infections.
Diagnosis & course of disease
The first action after a snake bite is to remove the injured person and all bystanders from the danger zone. If possible, try to identify the snake. Size, color, markings, head and eye shape or maybe even a photo can later help the doctor in choosing the right antiserum.
Even if it is not clear whether the snake is poisonous, a doctor must be consulted immediately or an ambulance must be called. The patient should be moved as little as possible until the doctor arrives or during transport to the doctor. The affected body part should be immobilized to prevent the poison from spreading faster. To prevent infection of the bite, local disinfection of the bite wound should be performed.
Any further manipulation such as sucking out the poison, cutting out the wound or applying a pressure bandage should be avoided. Instead, watches, rings, bracelets or tight clothing should be carefully removed around the bite wound so that constrictions cannot occur even in the case of severe swelling.
Serious complications usually occur after a venomous snake bite. The venom of some snakes has a strong cell-damaging effect and destroys cells and tissue within a short time. Neurotoxins paralyze the central nervous system and, without the rapid injection of an antidote, result in death from respiratory paralysis. Myotoxins damage muscle tissue – during this process the muscle protein myoglobin is released, which impairs the function of kidney cells and can cause kidney failure.
Many snake bites trigger a blood clotting disorder that leads to uncontrollable bleeding and, if left untreated, to fatal multi-organ failure. Cardiotoxic toxins disturb the electrolyte balance and thus impair the heart function. Many snake venoms are composed of several toxic substances and therefore trigger several symptoms of poisoning at the same time.
Allergic reactions up to and including anaphylactic shock can occur both after a snake bite and after the injection of the antidote. The bite of a non-venomous snake or a so-called dry bite without venom can cause inflammation of the affected area as a complication. Occasionally, the infection spreads to nearby lymph nodes and vessels, and in very rare cases, this lymphangitis can result in blood poisoning (sepsis). Circulatory problems after a snake bite can be due to toxic effects, but can also occur as a sign of a panic reaction.
When should you go to the doctor?
If you are bitten by a snake, you should always see a doctor immediately. In the worst case, the affected person can die if the bite is not treated in time or is treated too late. In general, a very early diagnosis with early treatment has a positive effect on the further course. A doctor should be consulted if the victim has been bitten by a snake. As a rule, the bite is clearly noticeable and also leaves a bite wound. Those affected suffer from severe pain, swelling or even bleeding.
If these symptoms occur after the snake bite, a doctor must be consulted immediately. A doctor should also be consulted if the person concerned suffers from shortness of breath or diarrhea and vomiting. These symptoms after a snake bite indicate a serious bite that needs to be treated by a doctor. In the event of a snake bite, you should go to the hospital immediately or call an ambulance.
Treatment & Therapy
The bite site should be marked with a pen. Every 30 minutes, the progression of the swelling should be marked with another mark on the skin. In this way, the progression of the poisoning can be documented. After a snake bite, those affected are usually monitored for 24 hours.
Blood coagulation and circulation are checked and the patients are examined for any symptoms of a wound infection, for example by tetanus bacteria. An antiserum is only administered in the case of rapidly increasing symptoms or in the event of acute severe symptoms of poisoning.
When staying in snake areas, sturdy shoes should be worn. This should reach above the ankle if possible. The majority of snake bites occur near the ankle. Special gaiters are also available to protect against snake bites. A firm footing on hiking tours scares the snakes away from the vibration of the ground.
A walking stick, which is always placed in front of the feet, also warns the snake. Larger trees, bushes and shrubs should be avoided. Branches and stones lying on the ground should never be picked up or turned over. There may be a sleeping snake hiding there. Supposedly dead snakes should never be touched. The same, of course, applies to live snakes. Under no circumstances should any attempt be made to corner or capture snakes.
If the snake threatens, back away carefully and allow the animal to escape. Always use a flashlight in the dark to illuminate the paths and never sleep directly on the ground when sleeping outdoors. When camping, kitchen waste should be removed regularly. The litter attracts mice, which in turn attract snakes.
Follow-up care is particularly important for diseases where there is a likelihood of recurrence. In the case of a snake bite, however, this cannot be the medical responsibility. Patients should exercise reasonable caution in risk areas. Doctors may be able to advise on appropriate preventive measures. Sturdy shoes and long trousers prevent a bite. L
Statistically, about half of all bites are completely symptom-free. The animals do not infect humans. Since there are no signs, follow-up care is unnecessary. In the other cases, the follow-up is based on the symptoms. It may take several months for the final healing to take place. During this time, the blood test is the most important analysis criterion.
Vital functions are also checked regularly. A hospital stay lasting several days or weeks, followed by outpatient therapy, is not uncommon. In the worst case, a snake bite can also lead to amputation and tissue loss. A follow-up check is then based on the existing symptoms. For example, therapy for phantom pain is indicated if limbs had to be removed.
You can do that yourself
In the event of a snake bite, the measures often shown in films and television should under no circumstances be imitated. Sucking or tying off the bite site often does more harm than good. The most important thing is to keep the victim calm. If the snake is a non-venomous species, the wound can be treated like any other animal bite. That is, the wound should be cleaned and disinfected so that it does not become infected. The wound can then be protected from contamination with a plaster or spray bandage.
If the snake is venomous, the victim should be taken immediately to the nearest hospital equipped to treat snakebite victims. You can call the emergency number (110 in Germany) for more information. Unless the species of snake is known, the animal should be captured, if possible, or at least photographed or filmed to allow the treating physician to determine what serum is needed. However, the first responders must not put themselves in danger.
The victim should be transported lying down and move as little as possible so that the poison spreads through the body as slowly as possible. Tying off the bite site is only indicated when a highly venomous snake was involved and the nearest suitable hospital cannot be reached within about 30 minutes.