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Snake bites

It can be difficult to know if a bite from a snake is dangerous or not. This article explains the best first aid treatment depending on the type of snake involved.

It’s important to be aware that bites from snakes can cause a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) in some people. Learn more about first aid treatment for severe allergic reactions in the ‘anaphylaxis’ section below.

Snake bites

Australia has some 140 species of land snake, and around 32 species of sea snakes have been recorded in Australian waters.

About 100 Australian snakes are venomous. Although only 12 are likely to inflict a wound that could kill you. These include Taipans, Brown snakes, Tiger snakes, Death Adders, Black snakes, Copperhead Snakes, Rough Scaled snakes as well as the many sea snakes.

Most snake bites happen when people try to kill or capture them. If you come across a snake, don't panic. Back away to a safe distance and let it move away. Snakes often want to escape when disturbed.

Different types of snake bites

Dry bites

A dry bite is when the snake strikes but no venom is released. Dry bites will be painful and may cause swelling and redness around the area of the snake bite.

Because you can’t tell if a snake’s bite is a dry bite always assume that you have been injected with venom, and manage the bite as a medical emergency. Once medically assessed, there is usually no need for further treatment, such as with antivenoms. Many snake bites in Australia do not result in envenomation, and so they can be managed without antivenom.

Check your symptoms with healthdirect’s Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.

Venomous bites

Venomous bites are when the snake bites and releases venom (poison) into a wound. Snake venom contains poisons which are designed to stun, numb, or kill other animals.

Symptoms of a venomous bite include:

  • severe pain around the bite
  • tingling, stinging, burning or abnormal feelings of the skin
  • feeling anxious
  • nausea (feeling sick) or vomiting (being sick)
  • dizziness
  • breathing difficulties
  • problems swallowing
  • stomach pain
  • irregular heartbeat
  • muscle weakness
  • confusion
  • paralysis, coma or death (in the most severe cases).

In Australia, there are approximately one to four deaths a year from venomous snake bites.

Snake identification

Identification of venomous snakes can be made from venom present on clothing or the skin using a so called 'venom detection' kit. For this reason do not wash or suck the bite or discard clothing.

It's not recommended to kill the snake for purposes of identification, because medical services do not rely on visual identification of the snake species.

Antivenom is available for all venomous Australian snake bites.

First aid for snake bites

For all snake bites, provide emergency care including cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) if needed. Call triple zero (000) for an ambulance. Apply a pressure immobilisation bandage and keep the person calm and as still as possible until medical help arrives.

Avoid washing the bite area because any venom left on the skin can help identify the snake.

DO NOT apply a tourniquet, cut the wound or attempt to suck the venom out.

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)

Read these articles for an overview of:

For printable charts, see St John Ambulance Australia’s first aid resuscitation procedures (DRSABCD) poster, as well as their quick guide to first aid management of bites and stings.

Pressure immobilisation bandage

A pressure immobilisation bandage is recommended for anyone bitten by a venomous snake.

This involves firmly bandaging the area of the body involved, such as the arm or leg, and keeping the person calm and still until medical help arrives. If possible, mark the site of the bite on the bandage with a pen.

A guide to pressure immobilisation bandages can be found on the Australian Venom Research Unit (AVRU) website.

Anaphylactic shock

Snake bites can be painful. Occasionally some people have a severe allergic reaction to being bitten. In cases of severe allergic reaction, the whole body can react within minutes to the bite which can lead to anaphylactic shock. Anaphylactic shock is very serious and can be fatal.

Symptoms of anaphylactic shock may include:

  • swelling of the mouth, throat or tongue
  • difficulty swallowing
  • difficulty breathing or shortness of breath or wheezing
  • difficulty talking
  • a rash that may appear anywhere on the body
  • itching – usually around your eyes, ears, lips,throat or roof of the mouth
  • flushing (feeling hot and red)
  • stomach cramps, feeling or being sick
  • feeling weak
  • collapsing or falling unconscious.

Call triple zero (000) for an ambulance. If the person has a 'personal action plan' to manage a known severe allergy, they may need assistance to follow their plan. This may include administering adrenaline to the person via an autoinjector (such as an Epipen®) if one is available.

The Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy recommends that for a severe allergic reaction adrenaline is the initial treatment. For further information, visit the Choosing Wisely Australia website.

The St John Ambulance Australia first aid fact sheet for bites and stings can be found on their website. For more information on anaphylaxis, including setting up a personal action plan, go to www.allergy.org.au.

Not sure what to do next?

If you are still concerned about your spider bite, why not use healthdirect’s online Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.

The Symptom Checker guides you to the next appropriate healthcare steps, whether it’s self care, talking to a health professional, going to a hospital or calling triple zero (000).

Last reviewed: July 2015

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