All you need to know about snake bites

Do not take snake bites lightly, they can affect body functions in minutes and can be fatal.

Although research shows that a small percentage of bites are from venomous snakes, anyone bitten should visit a medical practitioner.

Snake fangs are not sterile and therefore the puncture wounds can easily be infected.

Doctor Vernon Wessels, from ER24, said this could lead to most commonly a condition called cellulitis. This is an infection of the tissue under the skin (subcutaneous tissue).

Depending on the bacteria involved, this condition can be serious and life threatening.

A medical practitioner will be able to assess the likelihood of the bite being venomous, the depth of the bite and possibility of underlying structure damage for example tendon sheaths or joint spaces that may have been penetrated. “A booster tetanus injection may be required as this is a serious life threatening condition that is easily preventable through vaccination,” said Dr Wessels.

The doctor will give advice on what to look out for and schedule a follow up visit if necessary.


Dr Wessels said it is important not to panic. “The majority of bites are not venomous. There have been patients who suffered serious injuries from motor vehicle incidents en route to hospital due to speeding.

“Panicking also increases blood circulation which could be detrimental. The patient should be calm. Apply a bandage to the area as this limits lymphatic drainage. Immobilise the limb if possible to limit movement,” said Dr Wessels.

He said a description of the snake is useful however hunting it down could waste time and lead to another victim. “There are other ways of identifying the type of venom based on the symptoms the patient develops. Snake experts are often consulted by the doctor,” he said.

Arno Naude, a well-known snake expert and lecturer, is one of the people often contacted.

Naude said if bitten by a snake:

  • Do not wash or cut the wound or try to suck out the venom.
  • Do not use home remedies. No ice, heat packs or electrical shocks should be used. Alcohol and aspirin should be avoided.
  • Tying a tourniquet around the bitten limb is a recipe for disaster in most instances.

If you see a snake, try to get away. If you are more than two body lengths away from the snake, walk around it. If you are closer than that, freeze and try to determine which direction the snake is moving in. Try another direction for yourself. If the snake is approaching then a quick exit is safer.

Naude said bites from potentially lethal snakes could cause traumatic injuries through tissue destruction or neurological problems. Smaller adders and snakes, like Burrowing Asps, can cause swelling, pain and tissue death (necrosis).

“In a worse case scenario, snake venom can kill by either causing the muscles to stop functioning which causes paralysis and suffocation. It can possibly cause the body to go into shock and the organs to shut down. It can also in some cases cause you to bleed uncontrollably which will cause your death,” he said.

This usually takes a number of hours and it is therefore advised that you seek medical attention immediately.

Naude said the most commonly encountered lethal snakes are the Spitting Cobra, Puff Adder, Snouted Cobra, Cape Cobra and Black Mamba. Rinkhals are commonly encountered but rarely bite, just like the Boomslang.

Although more abundant in pristine habitat, snakes can be found in built up areas.

“Because we are building on land that was historically open bush, some snakes have nowhere else to go. They end up in gardens in towns,” he said.

Some provinces see more snake activity due to building taking place right next to pristine areas.

“KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga are at the top of that list, however anywhere where development is taking place would be at risk,” he said.

He urged people not to catch or kill snakes but to contact an expert instead.

“Snakes do not want to waste their venom on people so will only bite if they feel threatened. Leave them alone and they will have no incentive to bite you,” he said.

He advises people to wear proper clothing and boots when walking in the bush. Also use a torch to shine on your path at night and be aware of what is around you at all times.

He added that all snakes they capture are released in a suitable habitat within the general geographical area where they were found. “Any snakes that are from another area are retained and either donated to a zoo or snake park or used for educational purposes. Releasing an animal of indeterminate origin could be an ecological disaster,” he said.

If you need assistance contact Naude on 083 739 9303 or e-mail

ER24’s Emergency Contact Centre can be reached 24 hours a day on 084 124 for any medical emergency.

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