Snakebite advice from the Flying Doctor

The South Eastern Section of the Royal Flying Doctor Service has updated its advice and procedures following the publication of a new snakebite study. The Australian Snakebite Project is the most comprehensive ever carried out, involved over 1500 patients and collated snakebite data from the past 10 years (2005-15).

Some interesting facts from the study:

  • There are around 3,000 reported snakebites each year in Australia, resulting in 500 hospital admissions and an average of two fatalities.
  • In those attacks in which the snake was positively identified, the brown snake was the most common biter (41%), followed by the tiger snake (17%) and red-bellied black snake (16%).
  • There-quarters of the people bitten are males aged in their 30’s.
  • Most snake attacks occur near houses, not in the bush.
  • Half of all bites occurred while people were out walking, with gardening and trying to catch a snake the most common other scenarios.
  • Snakebites are often painless and may go unnoticed as tissue damage is mostly light – lacerations, scratches or light bruising along with some bleeding or swelling.

The RFDS provides the following advice on handling snakebite emergencies.

Do

  • Act quickly after a possible bite – seek medical help immediately as the venom can cause severe damage to health or even death within a few hours.
  • Bandage firmly, splint and immobilise to stop the spread of venom. All the major medical associations recommend slowing the spread of venom by placing a folded pad over the bite area and then applying a firm bandage. It should not stop blood flow to the limb or congest the veins.
  • Only remove the bandage in a medical facility, as the release of pressure will cause a rapid flow of venom through the bloodstream.

Don’t

  • Do NOT wash the area of the bite or try to suck out the venom. It is extremely important to retain traces of venom for use with venom identification kits.
  • Do NOT incise or cut the bite, or apply a high tourniquet. Cutting or incising the bite won’t help. High tourniquets are ineffective and can be fatal if released.
  • Do NOT allow the victim to walk or move their limbs. Use a splint or sling to minimise all limb movement. Put the patient on a stretcher or bring transportation to the patient.

The new study has prompted the RFDS to reverse previous long-standing advice about the importance of identifying the colour and type of snake.

Staying in the area after an attack can be dangerous and recent advances in medication mean we can now treat any snakebite with a generic polyvalent anti-venom, so identification is no longer necessary.

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