Leslie Anthony has been bitten by snakes—“thousands of times.”
Kate Jackson has had her share of brushes with venomous reptiles. And Tom Mason has been stung several times by scorpions. Some travellers venturing to hotspots where snakes, spiders or scorpions make their home feel uneasy about the possibility of running into these creatures, or worse yet, being bitten by them.
Most often snakes and scorpions attack only when provoked, but there are rare instances when bites can occur, says Jackson, a herpetologist whose extensive field work with snakes in the Congo has been captured in her book Mean and Lowly Things. For example, rock climbing and reaching for a crevasse, stepping outside at night without shoes, putting on shoes without checking them or brushing up against a tree.
Bites from spiders and snakes and stings from scorpions can unleash significant pain, at rare times leading to death. According to the CDC Health Information for International Travel 2010, travellers might not even be aware of a bite from a spider, yet it can transmit communicable diseases. Here’s what you’ll need to know to prevent and treat bites and stings from any of these creatures.
Snakebites are more common in tropical regions with a high density of people coexisting in the snakes’ habitats. In sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia, for example, there are thousands of snake bite deaths each year in part because of “limited medical care, lack of infra-structure, and a belief in traditional cures, which don’t work,” says Jackson.
Travellers, unlike locals, are rarely bitten in these areas, adds Leslie Anthony, who has a PhD in zoology and is author of Snakebit: Confessions of a Herpetologist. “Locals in impoverished areas and/or rural areas may be working in agriculture, working in rice paddies, living close to nature, not wearing shoes, living in huts with dirt floors. Travellers are not living in these same conditions and doing these activities.”
Australia is an interesting case, says Jackson. “There is no place in the world that has such a varied number of venomous snake species, yet in Australia, they’ve got such good infrastructure, public education and medical care that in the past 27 years there have only been 40 snakebite deaths.”
If you are bitten by a snake, how you respond depends on the type of snake. In most cases, harmless snakes leave a u-shaped pattern of teethmarks. Venomous snakes leave two puncture wounds from their venomous fangs and possibly a pattern, but not necessarily. Sometimes even herpetologists can confuse a puncture from a scratch. For that reason, says Jackson, with any bite, seek medical attention so that you’re under observation and, if required, an anti-venom can be administered.
In all instances, try and communicate the type of snake that bit you. There are 3,300 species of snakes, but there are three main groups of venomous snakes: those from the viper family (including rattle-snakes), elapid (cobra, coral, sea snakes) family, and colubrids (commonly known as harmless snakes but recent research shows some of them may pose harm).
Bites from vipers are typically painful right away, cause bleeding, blistering and swelling around the wound and can result in permanent kidney damage or amputation of the affected area. Venom from elapids can cause damage to the nervous system. A person who’s been bitten by these snakes may have trouble breathing or swallowing and experience paralysis. Other symptoms can include headache, vomiting, fever and dizziness, among others.
To treat someone who’s been bitten, advises Jackson, keep the person calm and still to prevent the venom from spreading in the body, and don’t give them anything to eat and drink, except for only small sips of water. Don’t suck or cut the wound to extract the venom—you’ll just do more harm. Remove jewellery in case of swelling. And don’t apply alcohol or use ice, neither of which deactivate the venom. Instead, clean the wound gently with soap and water (except in Australia, where hospitals use sophisticated technology to swab the skin for venom and analyze it further for proper treatment). If you know the bite came from a snake in the cobra family, use a pressure bandage on the wound to delay its fast-acting nerve toxin. Don’t use a bandage on bites from vipers, which release a more slower-acting venom.
Leslie Anthony recommends travellers follow some basic rules to avoid snakes. • Wear sturdy closed-toe shoes/boots and long pants in grass/jungles when hiking. • Don’t step over a log without looking at the other side. Logs are a very common area for snakes to sit/wait for prey. • Avoid reaching into crevasses, dark holes or cavities. • Don’t brush up against a tree. • When trekking, use an experienced guide. Guides know what dangers to look out for. • Don’t try to pick up snakes (even dead snakes because others may be nearby). • Don’t panic. If you see a snake, keep a respectful distance. SCORPIONS Like snakes, scorpions don’t sting unless they’re threatened. Nocturnal creatures, there are about 1,400 species of them worldwide and only about 25 have venom that is potent enough to harm humans. The most lethal ones are found in Arizona, Mexico, Central American, Haiti, Dominican Republic, the Middle East and North Africa.
Tom Mason, curator of invertebrates with the Toronto Zoo, recommends travellers take the following safety measures to prevent a chance meeting with them: “Keep luggage closed when not being used, check shoes and hanging clothes before putting them on, and most importantly, don’t mess with them.”
What to do if you’ve been stung by a scorpion? “When it occurs to me, first a good loud curse helps,” says Mason. “Then it is more or less a waiting game until the pain subsides, which in most cases ranges from five minutes to an hour.” In all instances, it’s best to seek mergency medical attention if the following symptoms become worse: you have trouble breathing, high blood pressure, increased heart rate, muscle twitching or weakness. You may also have an allergic reaction to a scorpion sting so look for signs of hives, trouble breathing and nausea. Anti-venom, which can in itself be lethal, must always be administered by a trained person, adds Mason.
Few spiders are dangerous to humans. Among the biggest culprits: the brown recluse and widow group (North America), banana spider (South America), tarantula (S. America and Mediterranean and the southern United States), and Australian Sydney funnel-web. According to Mason, about 85 percent of what is diagnosed as spider bites are actually not. But if you suspect you’ve been bitten by one of these spiders, treat the wound like a snakebite and get to a hospital immediately. Symptoms can range from slight swelling and redness, to pain and stiffness or blistering skin accompanied by fever, rash, nausea and listlessness. Aspirin or acetaminophen and antihistamines may be recommended. Anti-venom or other medications may also be necessary.
NOTE: This is a guideline only. Always get individual medical advice from a travel health doctor before travelling.