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Sea Sick: Best aid for snake bites is antivenom, medical care

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Sea Sick: by Keith Murray

One of the most common questions I am asked when teaching a first-aid class onboard a yacht is about snake bites. Just how deadly are snakes? Is it like you see in the movies, one bite and you are dead?

First, here’s what not to do.

  1. Do not cut or suck on the wound. In addition to the obvious risk factors to the rescuer, cutting into the bite site can damage the skin and organs, increase the risk of infection, and most importantly does not remove venom.
  2. Do not use ice. Ice has no effect on venom and may damage the skin, causing frostbite.
  3. Do not use alcohol. Alcohol will not help, and indeed may increase venom absorption.
  4. Do not use a tourniquet. Tourniquets do not work on snake bites and may cause the victim to lose a limb.

There are more than 3,000 species of snakes worldwide. Of these, about 500 are venomous. About 5 million snakebites occur worldwide each year, causing about 125,000 deaths. In the United States, about 45,000 people are bitten by snakes each year; about 8,000 of these are from venomous snakes.

The total fatal snakebites in the United States is fewer than 10 people annually.

Snake venom is basically a modified form of saliva. It is used for self defense and prey immobilization, allowing the snake to incapacitate its prey before eating it. A snake’s venom acts quickly, affecting the prey’s central nervous system, lungs, heart and muscles.

Let’s group lizard bites in with snake bites here as we will treat both in similar manners.

First thing: If someone is bitten by a venomous (poisonous) snake or lizard, seek emergency medical care immediately. Don’t wait until the person is sick or experiencing other symptoms.

Never try to kill or capture the snake. Further exposure to the snake may risk an additional bite. A snake has the ability to bite and release venom by reflex action for up to 90 minutes after it is dead.

Get as much information about the snake as possible. If there is no danger, take a photograph. In the United States, the Poison Control Center (1 800-222-1212) may be able to help identify it.

Find the best medical care possible as quickly as possible. Antivenom may not be readily available at every medical facility. When available, always call an ambulance. If not, call the hospital and ask for the best place to be treated for the specific snake bite.

Symptoms from snake bites may appear within minutes or take hours to develop after a bite. Some of the symptoms may include severe burning or pain where bitten, swelling that starts at the bite and spreads, possible bleeding from the wound as well as blistering, fever, nervous system disruption, numbness, convulsions, excessive sweating, diarrhea, vision problems, increased thirst, nausea and vomiting, rapid pulse, difficulty speaking, and difficulty breathing and/or cessation of breathing.

The initial symptoms following a venomous snakebite can be misleading. A victim may have no initial significant symptoms, and then suddenly develop breathing difficulty and go into shock.

If symptoms do not develop after 10-12 hours, it is possible that the snake was either non-venomous or that no venom was injected. Even if symptoms do not develop after 10 hours, the victim should still seek medical attention and continue to look or symptoms for the next several weeks.

Bites by nonvenomous species require good wound care. Wash the bite with large amounts of soap and water and carefully inspect the wound for broken fangs, dirt or debris. Victims that have not had a tetanus booster within the past five years should get one.

Additionally, remove any constricting items on the victim, such as rings, watches or other jewelry that could reduce blood flow if the bite area swells. Immobilize the bitten area and keep it lower than the heart. Cover the area with a clean, cool bandage to minimize swelling and discomfort, and continue to monitor vital signs. If any changes occur, immediately call or radio for help.

Trained as an emergency medical technician, Keith Murray now owns The CPR School, which provides onboard CPR, AED and first-aid training as well as AED sales and service (www.TheCPRSchool.com). 

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