2019 Sep 16
Running into snakes and other creepy crawlies is just one of those (not-so-amazing) perks of living in a tropical country.
While it’s almost become a quintessential part of Sri Lankan living to experience those moments of pure unadulterated chaos when a wandering snake decides to take a tour of the property, the occurrence has become almost TOO common in the past years. We can point our fingers at the island’s rapid urbanization. The more space we take up for our housing schemes and complexes, the more we invade into their territory and displace them of their homes. As such, the likelihood of us running into snakes and possibly getting bitten has drastically increased.
As that popular saying goes however (that most people still don’t heed), these snakes are probably more afraid of you than you are of them. A snake attacking is usually driven by some sort of defensive mechanism. If you put yourself on their radar, to drive them away or even kill them, they’ll view you as a predator they need to strike against.
A recent survey outlined that a total of 80,000 Sri Lankans are bitten by venomous snakes each year, and out of those numbers, 400 die. The numbers could be more since causes of death aren’t always recorded properly. However, the statistics coupled with the rapid growth of our population only spells out one thing- every single one of us stands a chance of running into a snake so we all need to be up to date with our basic knowledge and first aid.
It’s a common misconception in Sri Lanka that every snake is poisonous and could possibly kill you. Well, let’s debunk that myth. This island is home to a 100 species of snakes, 50 of which are endemic! Out of these only 5 of them are known to be highly venomous and capable of killing a human. They are:
1. Russell’s Viper
The Russell’s Viper is often confused for a python (which is not venomous) but you can distinguish between the two by noticing (or not) these small details- the Russell’s Viper has distinct brown, oval patches along its body whereas the python has larger blotches and a blunter nose as well.
2. The Cobra
This is one snake you’re probably all too familiar with given the hooded shape of their head. They can actually be found all across the country- even in Colombo!
3. The Krait
There are two species of Krait, both of which are highly venomous and nocturnal. The Ceylon Krait is usually found in the wet zone, inhabiting rural villages and the surrounding forests whereas the Common Krait is found in the dry zone, hiding under logs, rodent holes and piles during the daytime.
4. The Saw-Scaled Viper
Most commonly found in coastal areas, this viper can be recognized through the distinctive feature of the bird-feet markings along their heads.
5. The Hump-nosed Viper
Previously classified moderately venomous, the Hump-nosed Viper was bumped up a notch after a discovery in 2010 that of the 61,000 snake bites recorded each year, 27% of the venomous bites along with fatal symptomatic effects were accounted by this snake.
So what happens when a snake bites you?
To understand why certain measures are taken during first aid instead of others, it always helps to know the biological process behind a snake bite.
Once bitten, it’s important to keep in mind that the venom is injected into your limb and not your bloodstream. So instead of being transported around the body through the blood, it travels in a different fluid transport system known as the lymphatic system.
The lymphatic system moves around far differently to that of blood. Your circulatory system is still active, even if you’re sleeping or lying still but lymphatic fluids only tend to move when you move your limbs. But while the venom doesn’t reach the bloodstream through the bite site, eventually through all that muscle movement, the lymphatic fluids do become blood after the vessels connect to form large lymphatic trunks that are connected to veins at the base of the neck. This is when the envenoming process is significantly exacerbated.
This leads us to another myth, which is that once you’re bitten, you only have moments to live but the fact is that without medical care, victims can actually last between 2 to 8 hours. The Black Mamba is the only snake with venom lethal enough to kill a human in 30 minutes- fortunately enough for us Lankans, they can only be found in Africa.
There are certain first aid steps victims should take, however, as they prepare to rush to the hospital to prevent unintentionally accelerating the process of venom reaching the bloodstream.
What you should do:
1. STAY STILL
Like we outlined above, the only way for the venom to get to the bloodstream is by moving your muscles and transporting the poison through the lymphatic system so you need to make sure that you keep the bitten limb absolutely still.
2. Pressure Immobilization Bandaging
This is a technique used to further stop the venom from spreading. What you need to do is firmly bandage the bite site, covering about 10 cm below and above. Next use another elastic roller bandage to firmly wrap from your fingers to your armpit or your toes to the groin (depending on where the bite site is). It should feel like a sprain bandage- firm but not uncomfortably tight.
3. Splint the limb
This is to guarantee that you don’t unconsciously move or bend the limb.
What NOT to do:
1. Do not try to get the snake venom out by cutting or squeezing the wound. This is a medical procedure that needs to be performed by professionals.
2. Do not try to use a tourniquet as this will likely damage the limb more by starving it of blood. Eventually necrosis will occur which will bring about an infection.
3. Do not try to change your clothes as even this slight wriggling of movement can stimulate venom to spread.
Finally, while identifying the snake that bit you is important to determine the anti-venom to be used, don’t waste time trying to identify what type of snake bit you and definitely don’t get preoccupied trying to get rid of it, get yourself to the hospital ASAP!
In a country where we run into all sorts of animals on the daily, having information like this at your fingertips could very well save a life so make sure to spread the word!