December 8, 2022

It’s Snakebite Season

As the weather begins to warm up in Victoria, snakes are becoming increasingly active and putting both humans and pets at risk of snakebites.

Knowing what to do if you or someone you are with is bitten, is critical. Most snakebites are treatable and can be managed effectively.

Today, we sat down with Associate Professor Joe Rotella, Clinical Toxicologist at Northern Health, to talk all things snakebites.

Why do we see so many bites around this time of the year?

A common myth about snakes is that they hibernate, where in fact, they undergo a process called brumation, where they slow their body processes down and will move during winter, but very slowly as they are not running on ‘full power’. Before they enter this cycle, they build up their sugar stores so when the weather does warm up, they have the instant energy they need to move and catch prey. So as spring arrives, the weather is warmer and the snakes head out for a meal. This year, heavier rainfall has meant more insects and therefore more prey for snakes such as frogs, lizards etc.

What are some of the things you can do to protect yourself from snakebites?

The first thing to say is that snakes do not want to bite people. They only bite when they feel very threatened, so prevention is key. Try to avoid situations where you might encounter a snake, especially if there is signage suggesting they are around, but that isn’t always possible. Here are some thoughts:

  • If you are traveling around areas with long grass, wear closed toed shoes and make an effort to stomp a bit – snakes have poor hearing but the vibrations will let them know you are nearby.
  • If you have wood piles on your property, take care if needing to move them as these are often popular places for snakes to reside in.
  • If you own a dog, consider snake avoidance training or keep your dog on a lead if you are walking in the bush or tall grass. Snake venom is not great for humans but can be far more lethal for dogs. Please protect your pets – there are providers out there that can be found via a Google search.
  • If you see a snake, do not pick it up and please do not try to kill it. It is illegal and it is far more likely to result in a bite. Call a qualified snake catcher to assist and keep small children and pets away until they arrive.
  • Mow your lawns and keep clutter in the yard to a minimum. The less places to hide, the less likely a snake will call your yard home.

 What to do if you are bitten by a snake?

  1. Stay calm – movement spreads the venom. Lie down and do not move the affected limb.
  2. If you are on your own, call Triple Zero (000). Do not try to move on your own.
  3. If you have a pressure bandage (these can be bought from your local chemist) and someone to help, they can apply from above the suspected bite site down (with some extra layers around where the bite is). It needs to be tight enough that you can just get a finger in, but no tighter that that.
  4. You can tie a stick or a newspaper etc. to use as a splint but not necessary.
  5. Do not try to catch the snake. We don’t need to know which snake it was as we use a combination of antivenom to cover the main venomous snakes in Victoria.
  6. Check the time – this will help the ED staff to manage you accordingly.
  7. Prepare to be in hospital overnight at a minimum – even without signs of being envenomed, we need to do multiple sets of blood tests for 12 hours from the bite. It isn’t a short visit but it is for your safety.

What are the symptoms of a venomous snakebite? 

Most people will feel pretty scared and anxious when they have been bitten by a snake or they think they may have, but the symptoms we look for that suggest envenomation include:

  • Severe nausea and vomiting
  • Severe headache
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Difficulty holding eyes open or difficulty moving your eyes as required
  • Bleeding from puncture sites (i.e. where blood tests taken) or from your nose or gums
  • Although rare, some people can collapse after a snakebite
  • Not having symptoms is reassuring but some people can be envenomed and have abnormal blood tests, so it is important you stay in hospital to be assessed properly.

What key messages would you like to share with the community on snakebites?

Snakes are not our enemies. Mutual respect and prevention is key to avoiding bites. Bites are rare, and bites where venom is injected are even rarer.

If you think you may have been bitten, call for help urgently as symptoms can progress. The sooner you get to hospital, the better. It is better to be safe than sorry.

We have a wonderful world to explore. Go out and see what’s out there but take care along the way. A bandage is inexpensive and light to carry and adds peace of mind.