• Jessica Evans

What do I do if I get bitten by a snake? (+ how venom works)


You might recall Bite-sized Sci sharing an article on what to do if you bump into a snake. Well, what if it's more than that? What if you get bitten?


I spoke to Chad Keates, a reptile specialist from Rhodes University's Department of Zoology and Entomology, and here's what he said you should do.

1. First, know when you're at risk.

Snakes, like other reptiles, are most active when it's warmer. "The reason for this is because snakes are ectothermic in nature, so they move more when it's warmer and hence they come into contact with people more when it's warmer." Chad explained that reptiles are more active in warmer weather because they need warmth to hunt. When it's cold, because they're ectothermic, their digestive systems slow down a lot, so they don't need to or want to eat anything because they can't digest.

You're also more likely to encounter a snake when you're out in nature on a hike for example. Although it's rare, you could also get bitten in a city if you're not aware and you happen to step on a snake passing by.


You might find lots of harmless snakes, like this slug eater, on warm days. Photo by Chad Keates.

2. Get to hospital

"The best thing you can do is to go straight to hospital," explained Chad. "Less than 1% of people die from snake bites once they get to hospital - hospital is the most important part."

Don't try and identify the snake, it isn't necessary for medical staff. And don't try and catch the snake. "Most people get bitten a second or third time when they try catching the snake or kill the snake and that wastes time."

Every minute counts, so once you've been bitten, head to hospital straight away.


Cape cobra (Naja nivea), the most dangerous snake in the Eastern Cape. Photo by Chad Keates.

3. That's it.

That's all you need to do. Just get to hospital. There you go.

The fear of snake bites is completely rational because snakes can be deadly. But the prospect of a snake bite becomes a lot less intimidating once you know how they work and how to treat them.

You find three types of snake venom.

1. Cytotoxic venom

How it works: Cytotoxic venom attacks the cells of the body and destroys your tissues. It's slow acting, so it's very rarely fatal.

Symptoms: Your skin starts to rot, and if left untreated, victims die from secondary infections.

Treatment: Get to hospital.

Who has it: Around Makhanda, Eastern Cape, you'll find cytotoxic venom in puff adders, night adders and Rinkhals.

Photos by Chad Keates.

2. Neurotoxic venom

How it works: This is the dangerous, fast-acting venom. Most fatal snake bites are from snakes with neurotoxic venom, because it's so fast-acting, taking effect from 20 minutes to two hours. It debilitates the victim's nervous system, causing them to stop breathing, resulting in suffocation.

Symptoms: Lips start to tingle, speech becomes impaired, eyes droop.

Treatment: Get to hospital. The antivenom is very effective.

Who has it: You'll find neurotoxic venom in the cape cobra and the black mamba.


Cape cobra (Naja nivea). Black mambas are not found in the Eastern Cape. Photo by Chad Keates.

3. Haemotoxic venom

How it works: Haemotoxic venom takes from eight hours to three days to kick in, so as long as you get to hospital you'll be fine. It works by liquefying the organs of the victim.

Symptoms: Victims of haemotoxic venom bites will experience nose bleeds, as well as bleeding from the eyes and ears. Eventually, you will suffer incredible internal bleeding and you'll die from blood loss.

Treatment: Get to hospital as soon as you can and you'll be treated with antivenom and you'll be fine.

Who has it: Boomslang and vine snakes have haemotoxic venom. Bites from these snakes are super rare.

Photos by Chad Keates.

As Chad puts it, "a snake bite is nowhere near as scary as anyone makes it out to be. Our hospitals are incredibly well-equiped, a snake bite is rare and it's really easily treatable."

He went on: "It only becomes dangerous if you do the wrong things like not go to hospital, try to do it yourself, try to catch the snake, try to kill the snake - that's when things get bad."


You can find out more about Chad and about snakes of the Eastern Cape on nextgenherpetologist.co.za.

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