Snake Bites, avoid and treat

Australian eastern brown snake eating eastern blue tongue lizard. Photo matt clancy

An Australian Eastern Brown snake snacking on an Eastern Blue Tongue lizard. Photo Matt Clancy. This is  the world’s second most venomous land snake.

Snake Bites Facts and Advice

The countries where most people die from snake bites are India and Sri Lanka with around 20, 000 fatalities annually in India alone.

In the USA the state with most snake bites is Arizona though recently a camper in Missouri died after a snake bite.

Australia hosts nine of the world’s top ten deadly snakes but averages only one fatal bite a year. A few years ago a tourist in Australia was bitten on the genitals by an eastern brown snake during a pee stop but survived to tell a tale of some pain and a lot of embarrassment.

According to the Department of Wildlife Ecology & Conservation at the University of Florida, snake bites in the USA cause five or six deaths per year and many of victims put themselves in harm’s way by their actions.
You are nine times more likely to die from a lightning strike than be fatally bitten by a snake.

Venomous Snakes

There are over 2, 700 species of snake in the world of which around 725 are venomous, though only 250 stock a powerful enough toxin to kill a human with one bite.
Bites from such reptiles are by far the most prolific cause of human death by dangerous animals in the world, with estimates by experts of around 125, 000 a year. However, almost all victims of snake bites are subsistence farmers in rural areas of Southeast Asia and Africa. Few tourists or even non-farming locals are likely to fall victim to snake bites.
Like most animals, snakes will only attack if threatened or surprised. They’d rather slither away. Let them go! Enjoy the sight of them. You’re not Indy Jones!

Avoiding snake bites

• never aggravate a snake in any way or try to capture it by hand. This may seem ridiculous, but most bites in the USA and Australia are a result of drunken late night bravado. If you see a grizzly bear do you feel you have to throw a rock at it?

• Camping? Keep the site clean and free of food scraps which may attract rodents (and possibly other dangerous animals! ) that will in turn attract snakes. Camp on areas of short grass as snakes dislike exposed areas and prefer to move through long grass. If possible sleep off the ground on a camp bed if nights are cold to avoid being joined by a snake seeking warmth.

• when out walking in snake zones, check the the areas immediately either side of where you will be treading.
If you go out at night – for a pee when camping for example – then consider wearing something more solid than flip flops and certainly don’t go outside your tent in bare feet. A torch is essential as many of these beasts are nocturnal travelers.

• wear substantial socks and boots and possibly gaiters when wild walking.

• do not lift up large stones or fallen vegetative matter unless absolutely necessary and if you must, proceed with extreme caution. These are favoured places for animals of the biting persuasion.

• if a snake is within striking distance and you are lucky enough to notice it – don’t panic! Stay absolutely still. These animals are very quick but generally attack only when they feel threatened so move away veery slooowly and don’t make any sudden movements.

Snake Bites Symptoms

Snake bite symptoms illustration

Possible symptoms of venomous snake bite. Graphic by Mikael Haggstrom.

Severe pain, swelling, discoloration around the bites; later comes fluid build-up, secondary infection, dead tissue, extreme skin and neural sensitivity. This may continue for several days.

If the venom contains neurotoxins the victim may experience nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, slurred speech, and difficulty in breathing.

Snake Bites Treatments

Important: In some countries such as Australia wounds should not be cleaned unless the animal has been firmly identified. Medical facilities have a venom detection kit that requires samples from the skin surrounding the bites.

1) Standard and best treatment

– a high proportion of bites do not result in any venom entering the body (the snake may not have refilled the venom after a previous encounter/the fangs might not reach deep enough to hit the bloodstream etc.), so don’t panic.

– the victim should be calmed and lie down to retard the spread of venom. ie. you don’t want your blood racing around your body.

– allow the bite to bleed freely for 30 seconds.

– quickly wrap a light bandage above and below the wound (if you can’t get two fingers under the bandage, it’s too tight).

– remove any jewellery or tight fitting clothing.

– Immobilise/splint the bitten limb and keep it at heart level (gravity-neutral) if possible. Too high causes venom to travel to the heart, too low causes more swelling.

– Do not drink alcohol or take any medicine or food.

– Get the victim to medical facilities ASAP for a shot of anti-venom, inside three hours if possible. Inform the clinic in advance of the snake’s identity if possible.

2) Cold pack

– quickly wrap a light bandage above and below the bites (if you can’t get two fingers under the bandage, it’s too tight).

– place a cold pack (frozen peas etc) over the wound. This will reduce the pain, reduce swelling and slow the travel of venom. It may also cause permanent tissue damage – frostbite – if left on too long.

– follow the last 3 steps of #1.

3) Cut and Suck, little chance of success, probably will make things worse

If the hospital is well over 3 hours away and the snake was a deadly one, some believe it may be acceptable to cut and suck or suction bites, but this is not normally recommended because:

a) it’s dangerous to perform in a panicky situation
b) the cut may do more damage than the original punctures – especially if secondary infection kicks in.
c) increased blood flow may accelerate the flow of venom too.

To cut/suck properly:

– quickly wrap a light bandage above and below the wound (if you can’t get two fingers under the bandage, it’s too tight).
-clean the area with antiseptic and reclean every few minutes.
– make cuts with a short, sharp blade near the bite site and start to suck/suction (a device available in some snakebite kits). The venom is tasteless and harmless in the mouth. 15 minutes max.
– follow the last 3 steps of #1.

4) Electroshock – little chance of success

A newish idea. The theory is that an electric shock disrupts the venom cells, reducing the impact of the toxins. The current should be DC (i. e. not from a wall socket), around 100k voltage at . 1 or . 2 milliamps. A small stun gun is sold for this purpose in USA.
• quickly wrap a light bandage above and below the bites (if you can’t get two fingers under the bandage, it’s too tight).
• hit the bite zone with a one second shock, 5 or 6 times in a circle.
• as the swelling moves out from the bite, so the shocks must follow the venom spread, firing a set every 10 or 15 minutes for an hour.
• follow the last 3 steps of #1.

The world’s most deadly snakes

Black Mamba, Dendroaspis polylepis, Kruger NP, South Africa. Photo Bernard Dupont

Black Mamba, Dendroaspis polylepis, Kruger NP, South Africa. Photo Bernard Dupont

Many snake experts consider the African black mamba and the Australian coastal taipan as the world’s most dangerous/deadly snakes. Snake bites from both species – that are biologically and behaviourally similar –  require fast anti venom treatment and frequently result in fatalities.

Deadly snakes are those that not only store powerful, fast-acting venom but are also ready and willing to deliver large quantities of it in a direct, calculated and efficient manner when it encounters humans. In other words these are the snakes to stay well clear of.

The world’s most venomous (toxic) snakes

Inland Taipan, Oxyuranus microlepidotus, Australia. Photo Bjoertvedt

Inland Taipan, Oxyuranus microlepidotus, Australia, the world’s most venomous land snake. Photo by Bjoertvedt


(1) Inland Taipan is the world’s most toxic land snake but fortunately rare, shy and retiring, unless manhandled badly. Most toxic does not, however, mean most deadly/dangerous.

(2) The  Eastern Brown snake is Australia’s biggest killer.

(4) The Coastal Taipan is more aggressive and commonplace than its Inland cousin. It’s venom is also faster acting so

(5) Black Tiger snake.

SE Asia: (3) Malayan Krait, a night mover.

USA: Water/Moccasins/Cottonmouth. Also Copperhead Rattlers and Coral snakes.

India: Russel’s Viper, Indian Cobra.

Africa: Egyptian Cobra, Puff Adder and Saw Scaled Viper.

Central/South America (e. g. Costa Rica): Fer-de-Lance


The venom is a specialized form of saliva and its primary purpose is to immobilise or kill the prey – sometimes also to begin digesting the meal before consumption.
The secondary purpose is as a defence. Different species will vary in their level of aggression when provoked.

The most toxic snake in the world, bar none,  is  a marine creature, Belcher’s Sea Snake (aka Faint-banded Sea Snake) which could kill 1800 people from one drop of venom. They live mainly in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.


The level of toxicity of any particular venom is in all practicality irrelevant as the amount injected makes the difference. This will depend on the size of venom sacks, the amount they contain if the animal has bitten something else recently, and the amount the creature decides or manages to inject.

The location of the bite will also influence the speed of the effect, depending on the proximity of the bite to main veins and arteries through which the venom travels to vital organs.

Some venoms can kill a strong male in a couple of hours, but it more commonly takes up to two days. Recovery can be long and incomplete.