snakeQ: I’m gearing up to embark on a monthlong, multi-city Australian adventure — Sydney, Melbourne, and then Adelaide to Darwin via Alice Springs on the Ghan — and I’m excited as can be. But one thing is giving me serious pre-trip trouble: I suffer from crippling ophidiophobia, and Australia — unfortunately — is a land known for being home to plenty of big, bad snakes.

My travel buddy, a co-worker and native Australian with a cruel sense of humor, thinks it’s hilarious and has been leaving rubber reptiles on my desk to get me all worked up. She tells me to get over it. But I don’t think I can. Realizing that I won't "shed" my fear of snakes in time for the trip, I would like to know how to respond appropriately when one lunges at and sticks its awful, hideous fangs in me. You know, just in case. Any pointers?


A. First off, before we get to talkin’ snakebite treatment which, by the way, probably isn’t even necessary because you won’t be ambushed and bitten by snakes on your adventures Down Under (see, that’s the way to approach it!), I encourage you to think happy, Australia-related thoughts over the days leading up to the trip. Think of koalas, Kylie, Bondi Beach, Bindi and barbecues. Think of you and Elle McPherson (or Matthew Mitcham) on a deserted beach with nothing but a six-pack of Fosters and a blanket. Think of what a wonderful time you’ll have without even seeing the “S” word.

Now that we’ve got the positive, non-serpent thinking out of the way, I’d like to suggest a few ways to prevent being bitten by a snake on your trip in the first place because, as you mentioned, Australia is famous for ‘em (and for a host of other fearsome critters). According to the Department of Environment, Climate Change & Water of New South Wales, Australia is home to 140 species of land snakes and 32 species of sea snakes. Of all Australian snakes, around 100 are venomous but only 12 can kill you. The University of Sydney reports (in a Time article that you probably won’t want to read) that out of the 3,000 folks bitten annually by snakes in Australia, only one to two of them perish.

That said, use basic common sense, Oliver. Don’t go skipping barefoot through the bush in the middle of the night or venture into far-flung areas with posted snake warnings while wearing shorts and flip-flops. Be aware of your surroundings and make things easy on yourself by simply avoiding areas where you could potentially come in contact with a snake. And if you do happen to stumble upon one, don’t scream, stomp your feet or throw things at it. Take a deep breath and calmly walk the other way much like you would if you had walked in on your parents getting busy. Snakes are more scared of us than we are of them so don’t make the situation worse by agitating one. They don’t want to bite. But if they feel threatened, they will. 

Now let’s address that “nightmare scenario” that’s been causing you so much grief: You’re minding your own business on a nice little nature walk and you accidentally step on an unsuspecting snake. It gives you a nip in the ankle before slithering off. Whoops. First and foremost, it’s important to stay calm. And still. If the snake is venomous (which I hate to say it could very well be since this is Oz we’re dealing with), freaking out could just advance the flow of venom through the bloodstream. Don’t suck on the wound to remove the venom (you do not want the venom in your mouth!), apply ice or a cold compress or cut around the wound to drain the venom. What you should do, hopefully with the help of someone, is get yourself to a hospital for treatment as soon as possible.

In the window of time (hopefully not a long one) before proper medical treatment, remove any articles of clothing or jewelry that could cut off circulation and, perhaps most importantly, keep the wound below the heart to slow the flow of venom throughout the body. This means lying down, if possible, keeping the affected limb immobile.

If a bandage is available, preferably elastic, apply it firmly to the wound to further prevent the flow of venom. But do not make the bandage too constricting (no tourniquets) as you do not want to cut off blood flow completely. Although some sources recommend washing the wound immediately with soap and water, Australian authorities advise against doing this as traces of venom left of the skin or bandage can help medical personnel properly determine which type of antivenin to use in treatment. It also helps to get a good look at the snake — but for the love of God don’t chase after it — to help emergency workers understand exactly what they’re dealing with.

And again, remember to try and stay calm. If you start throwing up, get diarrhea or completely lose it, it’s not necessarily a result of the bite itself but a result of total snakebite-induced panic.

So an overview of snakebite first aid essentials: 

  • Stay as calm and motionless as possible and keep the affected limb immobile.
  • Do what you can — keep the wound below the heart, remove restrictive clothing or jewelry and firmly apply a bandage — to reduce the flow of venom without cutting off circulation.
  • No cutting or sucking or, according to Australian authorities, washing the wound.
  • Get thee to an ER ASAP. 
So there you have it, Oliver. I really do hope you manage to enjoy your trip to Oz despite the snake-induced jitters. Remember, it’s all about positive thinking, using common sense and acting swiftly and appropriately if a slimy, slithering monster sinks its fangs into your tender flesh (but that won’t happen!). Personally, I’d be more concerned about the crocodiles and spiders but that’s just me. I mean seriously, what is with the fauna in Australia? It’s either cute and cuddly or nightmarish and deadly. Be sure to send me a jar of Vegemite and some Tim Tams if you make it out alive.

— Matt

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Photo: hangdog/Flickr

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

How do I treat a snakebite?
I would like to know how to respond appropriately when one lunges at and sticks its awful, hideous fangs in me.