Just how dangerous are Australian snakes?

Just how dangerous are Australian snakes?

Coiled snake

Australia appears to be renowned globally for housing a whole host of dangerous marine and land critters. Some predators like the Great White shark and Saltwater crocodiles, can result in significant trauma and death due to their sharp teeth and immense strength. Others are small, but pack a punch via myotoxins and neurotoxins that are so powerful that one dose of their venom could hypothetically kill 20 adults.

Australia’s reputation for our many and varied lethal species was not helped when in 2006, the seemingly indestructible Steve Irwin, aka the Crocodile Hunter, was killed as a result of being speared through the chest by the barb of a sting ray, a freak occurrence that happened whilst he was filming a documentary called ‘Oceans Deadliest’.

We’ve even had a humorous song written about our array of dangerous creatures by The Scared Weird Little Guys (watch here).

The actual risk (as opposed to the perceived risk) these critters pose to us is a different matter.

Statistically, as far as deaths from the animal kingdom go, a visitor or resident here is more likely to be killed as a result of a fall from a horse, their car hitting a cow, or an attack from a dog, than they are of a snake, spider, shark or croc attack.

Let’s talk about perhaps the most common thing people are frightened of- snakes. Australia has quite a number of venomous snakes, including but not limited to the Inland Taipan  and the Eastern Brown (the world’s first and second most venomous snakes, respectively); the Death Adder, Red Belly Blacks and Tiger snakes.

Associate Professor Bryan Fry, a herpetologist and venom expert at the University of Queensland, notes in an article for Australian Geographic that snake bites are  ‘actually quite rare in Australia and, since the development of anti-venom, fatalities have been low – between four to six deaths a year.

“This is in contrast to India, for example, where bites may reach one million a year, with over 50,000 deaths.”

He goes on to say,  “Snake bites are very, very rare [in Australia] and often the fault of the person being bitten. Most bites occur when people are trying to kill a snake or show off.”

It’s also important to remember that snakes would prefer to not interact with humans. They just want to be left to their snakey activities. Their venom is extremely energy intensive for them to produce and the last thing they want to do is waste it on us. If they want to give you a fright or a warning, (rather than aiming to kill you in order to eat you), you will receive what is known as a ‘dry bite’ where little to no venom will be injected.

This doesn’t mean you should assume it is a dry bite, however. Always treat a snake bite as if it is venomous, and follow the first aid treatment outlined below.

I often have people ask me in my first aid courses if it’s true that you should wash the snake bite site. Cut the bite site. Spit on the bite site. Suck or even urinate on the bite site (!) I’m blaming John Wayne movies for these ideas.

We do not wash the bite site because identification of venomous snakes can be made from venom present on clothing or the skin using a Venom Detection Kit. Likewise, cutting and/or sucking the bite site just delays the correct treatment and risks infection. And just to be clear, there is zero evidence that urine can help in any way for a snake bite. 

Another common misconception is that if you cannot see paired puncture marks after a snake bite, you cannot have been bitten. It is not uncommon for bites to be painless and without visible marks, or bites that result in just a small scratch. many people that have been bitten by Eastern Browns, for example, have not been immediately aware they have been bitten, assuming their leg has caught on a twig, or as one man reported to me, a piece of corrugated iron.

Minimising your risk of being bitten by a snake:

  • Keep  your house free from habitats that will attract snakes:
  • Do not have large piles of mulch/compost lying around
  • Ensure left over pet food is thrown out rather than left in pet bowls overnight
  • Get rid of wood piles
  • Regularly mow the lawn
  • Wear appropriate clothing and footwear. If you are bush walking, or walking through long grass, or  working near garden refuse/wood piles etc, it is wise to wear long pants such as jeans, and boots/gumboots.

More than 80% of snake bites occur when someone is trying to kill or capture a snake, so if you spot a snake, back away slowly and if necessary, call a wildlife/snake professional to come and remove it. 

Snake bites- Treatment:

Call for help. If it is yourself that has been bitten, remain where you are and get the help to come to you. Of course, if you are alone with no mobile phone, you’ll have to get yourself to a phone to call for help. Prior to doing that, apply a compression bandage. (Strips of clothing or similar can be used in the absence of bandages).                                                                                                                           


How to apply a compression bandage:

  • Firstly, place a sterile pad over the bite site in order to soak up any residual venom (useful for faster identification of snake at hospital, and therefore faster administration of the appropriate anti-venom). If you do not have a first aid kit handy, use a handkerchief or bit of clean, dry clothing in place of a pad.
  • Apply a good quality compression bandage over the pad, and wind your way up the limb as far as  you can go (armpit if bite is on the arm, groin if bite is on the leg). Bandages should be placed over clothing to minimise movement from removing clothing- alternatively, cut the clothing off and apply the bandage directly over the skin. You want to apply the bandage as firmly as you would for a sprain- you should still be able to just fit two fingers under the bandage. Remember- you are NOT attempting to cut the circulation off (the venom is in the lymphatic system to begin with- cutting the circulation off may result in the victim having to have the entire limb amputated).
  • Once you have wound up from the bite site, secure that bandage and apply another one from the extremities (toes/fingers) up to the pad, where you first started. The idea is to cover the entire limb, only leaving nail beds visible (so you can check that you have not inadvertently cut off the person’s circulation). You may well need 2 or even 3 bandages.*
  • It is imperative that the victim remains still and calm. Snake venom enters the lymphatic system, which is powered by muscle movement- in other words, the more you move around, the faster the venom makes its way to your lymph nodes and ultimately your circulatory system.
  • Apply a splint to the limb to prevent the person from moving the limb. You can improvise and use, eg, a rolled up newspaper, a tree branch etc.
  • If you have not already done so, call emergency services and request an ambulance.

In conclusion, it is possible, despite popular belief from friends overseas, to live a long and healthy life in Australia without being bitten by a deadly animal. A healthy respect for the fauna in conjunction with sensible preventative measures and knowing what to do in case of envenomation will go a long way.

*This is why I recommend 3 good quality bandages, a sterile pad, and perhaps some trauma scissors to be included in a snake/spider bite kit.

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