Summer is snake-season! Know what to do

By Petro-Anne Vlok
30 November 2015

Braais, beach, sun, sand . . . and snakes? Seems summer isn’t only a time for South Africans to be out and about – the number of snakes slithering about appears to be increasing by the week.

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Before you go camping, hiking or hunting, find out where the nearest hospital is and do a snakebite first aid course if possible. Also, if you’re going somewhere far from help, for instance a hiking trip in the mountains, call your medical aid and ask if they cover helicopter air ambulances.

HOW TO AVOID SNAKEBITES

Most snakes will try to flee from humans. If threatened it may strike out so keep a distance of more than 5 m.

If you come across a snake in your home, make sure you kids and pets are safe, says Isabel Wentzel, manager of the NSCPA’s wildlife protection unit. Then call an expert – trying to catch is snake is exactly how many people end up being bitten, Johan Marais of the African Snakebite Institute says.

Rodents attract snakes so clear away any material under which rats and mice may hide. Water features also draw snakes as they like to eat toads.

Wear boots and long trousers when in the field, step on logs and rocks, not over them, be vigilant when collecting firewood and use a torch when walking at night, Marias says.

TYPES OF VENOM

Snake venom in South Africa can be broadly divided into three groups:

& Neurotoxins (mambas and cobras): It affects the nervous system, says Marais. “These bites are often very serious as a lack of breathing soon kills victims if not treated properly.”

& Cytotoxins (adders and spitting cobras): Cytotoxic venom causes swelling, sever pain and tissue damage. Its slower acting than neurotoxic venom, but necrosis can set in and the faster you get to a hospital, the less tissue damage there’ll be.

& Haemotoxins (boomslang and twigsnake) – It’s slow acting, with symptoms taking between six and 12 hours to show. “Venom from the boomslang and twigsnake can cause your blood to lose its ability to coagulate and then you bleed out,” Naude says.

TYPES OF ANTI-VENOM

In South Africa there are two types of anti-venom -- monovalent anti-venom for boomslang bites, and a polyvalent anti-venom, which covers mambas, cobras, rinkhals and two adders (puff and gaboon adder), says Marks.

If you’ve been bit, go to the ICU, where doctors will monitor your symptoms and give you the necessary anti-venom. “Anti-venom should only be administered by trained medical professionals in a medical facility. Sometimes people develop a life-threatening anaphylactic shock reaction when they receive anti-venom,” Marks warns.

“Every time a snake bites, it decides exactly how much venom it’s going to use and it’s common for potentially deadly snakes to bite without injecting any venom, or very little venom,” Marias explains. “Up to 80 per cent of people who end up in hospital after a snake bite don’t require anti-venom.” Still, you must go to the hospital as you won’t be able to tell if you got a dry-bite or a lethal dose.

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