Snake bites: key facts to know about nature's bitey belly dwellers

Having covered poisonous jelly bobs and bitey sheep bugs, we now turn our attention to the fanged reptiles of the long grass …

From the biblical tale of the silver-tongued serpent, through classic songs of Medusa and into the worship of slithering gods in ancient Egypt, our scaly friends have held special accord. Whilst popcorn media portrays snakes as venomous death machines, we in Britain may take some solace in our rather wussy natives. British snakes are, for the most part, harmless. There is little need to fear most British varieties, and certainly no chance of being turned to stone any time soon.

The potential dangers of snakes in the UK

One UK species does present some threat, Vipera berus, the adder. This venomous species is rather globe-slithering, being found as far as the iced hills of Scandinavia and the dry downs of the southern counties. They favour brushy overgrowth to suit their camouflage and to provide rich hunting grounds. They are recognised by their diamond-like skin pattern, triangle or cross tattoo on a blocky head and ridged snout. Despite their scary demeanour, they rarely attack humans, only reacting to threat. Their main diet is small mammals, and their weapon is their venom.

Like all snake venoms, the chemical mixture of adder poison is formed of enzymes. Enzymes are complex molecules which may aid or hinder our bodies' own processes. In the case of snake venom, these enzymes are used against us. Fortunately, like a weekend's drinking, the effect is dose-specific. The dose of poison in an adder bite is extremely low and death from a bite is fantastically rare. So, like the drink, one 'snakebite' is unlikely to cause too much harm.

Adder bites may be wet or dry. A dry bite is one without poison, and requires little treatment more than painkillers and local antihistamines. A wet bite will inject poison. Local inflammation, swelling and pain are common. The symptoms of poisoning can include weakness and, rarely, paralysis, bleeding, nausea, vomiting and collapse. Much like jellyfish and bees, the real danger is high dose and risk of allergic reaction.

In high doses and with allergy, a bite may result in shock. This is when, for a number of reasons, the body is no longer able to supply essential organs with fuel, such as the brain and heart. This will result in fast funny heartbeats, dizziness, weakness, pallor, breathlessness, nausea and collapse. The difficulty in treating these bites is there is an overlap in symptoms from mild toxicity to complete shock, so it is always best to assume the worst and seek emergency help.

In most cases only supportive therapy will be needed with a short hospital stay. Intravenous fluids and analgesia may be used along with medicines that reduce inflammation and allergy. These drugs are of similar families used in bee stings. In rare cases an anti-venom may be needed. In most cases people can expect a full recovery in a number of weeks.

Outside the UK

Abroad the case is dramatically different, and we truly enter the terrifying world of slithery death. Australian species, such as the black mumba and taipan, can kill with one bite. Amazonian anacondas may kill through crushing, and the Belcher's sea snake may produce enough venom per bite to kill 100 people. Unlike British snakes, our foreign cousins mean business.

The simplest measure to protect yourself is prevention. Avoid areas where snakes are known to live, never disturb a snake and if bitten, do not try to catch or kill a snake. Ring emergency help straightaway. Do not try to suck out the venom or tie off the limb to stop the spread of poison as it may do more harm than good. Finally, make sure to remember the snake's appearance, as getting the right anti-venom relies on correct identification. This is true in the UK or abroad.

So we end today's trawl through nature's unpleasant beasts, but be assured, the hills are abuzz with the sound of what's to come.

Ben is a young NHS doctor in the Southwest. His interests include neurology, health communication, and medical ethics. He is also an avid advocate of compassionate care and quality improvement, running a project in the Southwest around medical humanities.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's alone. Where facts are presented, these are evidence-based. The author is happy to receive questions. There are no conflicts of interest.

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