The Dangers of Snakebites: Know the Signs and When to Seek Medical Help
Snakebite is an injury caused by the bite of a snake, resulting in the injection of venom into the victim’s body. Snakebites can be a serious medical emergency and require prompt medical attention.
There are several common names used to refer to snakebites, such as snake envenomation, snake venom poisoning, or ophitoxaemia. These terms describe the condition where venom is introduced into the bloodstream through the snake’s bite.
In the United States, snakebites are relatively rare compared to other parts of the world. The country is home to several venomous snake species, including rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths/water moccasins. However, due to the widespread availability of antivenom, well-established medical facilities, and educational campaigns on snakebite prevention, the incidence of snakebites in the USA is lower compared to regions with a higher prevalence of venomous snakes.
Various Phases of Snakebite:
- Bite phase: This is the initial stage following a snakebite. It involves the physical injury caused by the snake’s fangs penetrating the skin and the introduction of venom into the body. The severity of the bite can vary depending on the snake species, size, and the location of the bite.
- Local effects: After a snakebite, local effects can occur near the site of the bite. These may include pain, swelling, redness, and bruising. The severity of local symptoms can differ based on the type of venom injected and individual factors.
- Systemic effects: Snake venom can also cause systemic effects throughout the body. Different snake species have varying types of venom, which can affect different body systems. Common systemic symptoms may include headache, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, sweating, weakness, or difficulty breathing. Severe cases can lead to cardiovascular collapse, coagulopathy (bleeding disorder), renal failure, or even death if left untreated.
- Complications: Snakebites can lead to various complications, especially if left untreated or if appropriate medical care is delayed. Infection at the site of the bite, tissue damage, necrosis (cell death), and secondary infections can occur. Additionally, psychological distress and anxiety may develop due to the traumatic nature of the incident.
The diagnosis of snakebite typically involves a combination of clinical assessment, history taking, and laboratory tests. Here are the steps involved in diagnosing a snakebite:
- Clinical Assessment: The healthcare provider will evaluate the patient’s symptoms and perform a physical examination. They will examine the bite site for signs of fang marks, swelling, redness, and other local effects. They will also assess the patient’s vital signs, including heart rate, blood pressure, and respiratory rate.
- History Taking: The healthcare provider will gather information about the circumstances surrounding the snakebite, including the time and location of the incident, the type of snake involved (if known), and any initial symptoms experienced by the patient. This information helps in determining the potential venomous nature of the snake and guides subsequent management.
- Laboratory Tests: To confirm the presence of snake envenomation and identify the specific snake species, laboratory tests may be performed. These tests may include:
A. Venom Detection: If the snake is available, attempts may be made to collect and identify its venom. This can assist in confirming the type of snake involved and guide specific antivenom treatment.
B. Enzyme Immunoassays: Blood tests can be conducted to detect the presence of snake venom toxins in the patient’s bloodstream. Enzyme immunoassays (EIAs) are commonly used for this purpose.
C. Complete Blood Count (CBC): A CBC helps evaluate the patient’s overall blood cell counts, including red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. Abnormalities in these counts may indicate venom-related complications, such as hemolysis or coagulopathy.
D. Coagulation Studies: Coagulation tests, such as prothrombin time (PT), activated partial thromboplastin time (aPTT), and fibrinogen levels, can assess the patient’s blood clotting function. Snake venom can interfere with normal clotting mechanisms, leading to abnormal results in these tests.
E. Renal Function Tests: Blood and urine tests may be conducted to evaluate kidney function. Some snake venoms can cause kidney damage, and monitoring renal function helps in assessing the severity of the envenomation.
- Imaging Studies: In certain cases, imaging studies like X-rays or ultrasound may be performed to assess for signs of tissue damage, fractures, or foreign bodies near the bite site.
The treatment for snakebite aims to relieve symptoms, prevent the spread of venom, and manage complications. Immediate medical attention is crucial in order to receive appropriate care. Here are some key aspects of snakebite treatment:
- Removal from the snake’s vicinity: The first step is to move the victim away from the snake to prevent further bites or attacks.
- Immobilization: Keeping the affected limb immobilized can help slow the spread of venom. The limb should be splinted or immobilized with a bandage, if possible.
- Emergency medical services: Call for emergency medical assistance as soon as possible. The victim should be transported to the nearest medical facility equipped to handle snakebite cases.
- Supportive care: Supportive care measures are provided to manage symptoms and prevent complications. These may include:
A. Monitoring vital signs: The patient’s heart rate, blood pressure, and respiratory rate will be closely monitored.
B. Pain management: Pain relief medications, such as analgesics, may be administered to alleviate discomfort.
C. Wound care: The bite wound should be cleaned with mild soap and water to reduce the risk of infection. However, it’s important to avoid excessive scrubbing or applying substances that could potentially worsen tissue damage.
D. Tetanus prophylaxis: Tetanus immunization status will be assessed, and tetanus prophylaxis may be administered if necessary.
- Antivenom administration: Antivenom is the specific treatment for snakebite envenomation. It is made from antibodies that neutralize the venom toxins. The decision to administer antivenom depends on factors such as the type of snake, the severity of symptoms, and laboratory test results.
A. Antivenom administration is typically performed in a healthcare facility under the supervision of trained medical professionals.
b. Prior to administering antivenom, a sensitivity test may be conducted to check for any allergic reactions to the antivenom.
- Monitoring and supportive therapy: Patients may require monitoring for several hours to assess their response to treatment and watch for potential complications.
A. In severe cases, patients may require intensive care unit (ICU) admission for close monitoring and management of complications.
B. Supportive therapies may be provided to address specific complications, such as administering fluids to maintain hydration, managing coagulopathy, or providing respiratory support if needed.
- Psychological support: Snakebites can be traumatic experiences, and psychological support should be provided to help the patient cope with the incident and any associated anxiety or distress.
Self-care plays an important role in managing snakebites, both before seeking medical attention and during the recovery process. Here are some self-care measures that can be taken:
- Stay Calm: It is essential to stay calm and avoid panic. Panicking can elevate heart rate and blood circulation, potentially speeding up the spread of venom throughout the body.
- Immobilize the Affected Limb: If you have been bitten on an arm or leg, immobilize the limb using a splint or by securing it in a fixed position. This can help slow the spread of venom.
- Remove Restrictive items: Remove any tight clothing, jewelry, or accessories near the bite area. Swelling may occur, and it’s important to prevent constriction that could further impede blood flow.
- Clean the Wound: If possible, gently clean the snakebite wound with mild soap and water to reduce the risk of infection. Avoid using harsh chemicals or applying substances that may aggravate the wound.
- Apply a Clean, Loose Dressing: Cover the bite with a clean and sterile dressing to protect it from dirt and bacteria. Ensure that the dressing is not too tight, as it should not restrict blood flow.
- Keep the bite Area Below the Heart Level: Elevating the affected limb slightly below the level of the heart can help reduce swelling and slow the spread of venom. However, do not elevate it too high, as it could restrict blood flow.
- Take Over-the-Counter Pain Relievers: If necessary, over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen (paracetamol) can be taken to help manage pain. However, always follow the recommended dosage and consult a healthcare professional if unsure.
- Do Not Apply Ice or Heat: Avoid applying ice or heat to the snakebite wound. These can potentially worsen tissue damage and increase the absorption of venom.
Ask Your Question
Prevention plays a vital role in reducing the risk of snakebites. Here are some preventive measures individuals can take to minimize the chances of snakebite:
- Awareness and education: Learn about the types of venomous snakes in your area and their habitats. Understand their behavior, feeding patterns, and common areas where they may be found. This knowledge will help you identify potential snake encounters and take appropriate precautions.
- Wear protective clothing: When venturing into areas known to have snakes, wear long pants, thick socks, and boots or closed-toe shoes. This attire helps provide a barrier against snakebites.
- Be cautious in Snake-Prone Areas: Exercise caution when in snake-prone environments, such as tall grass, rocky areas, or dense vegetation. Stick to designated paths and avoid walking through areas where you cannot see the ground clearly.
- Use a flashlight at night: Snakes are more difficult to spot in low-light conditions. Use a flashlight when walking at night to improve visibility and reduce the chances of accidental encounters.
- Avoid provoking or handling snakes: Never attempt to handle or provoke snakes, even if you believe them to be non-venomous. Many snakebites occur when individuals try to capture or kill snakes. Respect their space and observe from a safe distance.
- Use caution when lifting objects: Snakes may seek shelter under logs, rocks, or debris. When lifting or moving such objects, use caution and be prepared for the possibility of a snake being present.
- Keep your surroundings clean: Remove potential snake-hiding spots around your home, such as piles of wood, leaf litter, or tall grass. Maintain a well-maintained yard with trimmed vegetation and clear any clutter that could attract snakes or their prey.
- Seal entry points: Ensure that your home is properly sealed to prevent snakes from entering. Seal cracks in walls, floors, and windows. Install screens on windows and vents.
- Be cautious around water bodies: Exercise caution when swimming or walking near bodies of water, as snakes may inhabit these areas. Pay attention to warning signs in areas where snakes are known to be present.
- Teach children about snakes: Educate children about the dangers of snakes and how to react if they encounter one. Teach them to stay away, remain calm, and seek adult assistance.
When to See a Doctor
It is essential to seek immediate medical attention if you or someone you know experiences a snakebite. However, there are certain warning signs and symptoms that should prompt urgent medical care. These include:
- Fang or snakebite marks: If you see fang marks or are certain that you have been bitten by a snake, seek medical help regardless of the presence or absence of symptoms.
- Severe pain or swelling: If the pain at the site of the bite is severe or rapidly worsening, or if there is significant swelling, it is important to seek immediate medical attention.
- Localized redness and bruising: If the area around the bite becomes intensely red, develops spreading bruising, or shows signs of infection such as increased warmth, red streaks, or pus, medical evaluation is necessary.
- Difficulty breathing or swallowing: If you experience difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, wheezing, or difficulty swallowing following a snakebite, it may indicate the involvement of respiratory muscles or the throat. This requires immediate medical attention.
- Nausea, vomiting, or dizziness: If you develop persistent nausea, vomiting, or dizziness after a snakebite, it may indicate systemic effects of the venom and necessitates prompt medical care.
- Bleeding or abnormal clotting: If you notice unexplained bleeding from the bite site, gums, nose, or other areas, or if you experience abnormal bruising or prolonged bleeding from minor injuries, urgent medical attention is needed.
- Neurological symptoms: The development of neurological symptoms such as blurred vision, slurred speech, muscle weakness, numbness or tingling, or seizures after a snakebite is concerning and requires immediate medical evaluation.
- Signs of systemic shock: Symptoms of systemic shock include pale or clammy skin, rapid heartbeat, low blood pressure, confusion, or loss of consciousness. If any of these signs are present, it is a medical emergency, and urgent care is needed.
When to See a Doctor
Ongo Care is a telemedicine platform that can provide valuable assistance in the context of snakebites. Here’s how Ongo Care can help:
- Immediate access to healthcare professionals: Ongo Care allows individuals who have experienced a snakebite to connect with healthcare professionals promptly. Through secure video or audio calls, patients can receive real-time medical advice and guidance from licensed doctors or nurses.
- Remote assessment and triage: With Ongo Care, healthcare professionals can assess the severity of the snakebite remotely. They can evaluate the symptoms, ask relevant questions, and guide patients on the necessary steps to take based on the specific situation.
- Guidance on first aid and initial management: Ongo Care can provide step-by-step instructions on how to perform appropriate first aid measures for snakebites while waiting for further medical care. This can include advice on immobilizing the affected limb, wound cleaning, and pain management.
- Assistance in determining the need for hospital care: Ongo Care can help determine if a snakebite requires immediate hospitalization or if it can be managed with appropriate home care. Based on the symptoms, medical history, and assessment, healthcare professionals can provide guidance on the urgency of seeking in-person medical attention.
- Follow-up care and monitoring: Ongo Care can offer follow-up consultations to monitor the progress of snakebite treatment, assess wound healing, and manage any potential complications. This allows for ongoing support and guidance during the recovery process.