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Snake season is here: What you need to know

15 October 2021

October to April is snakebite season, and as temperatures increase, snakes become more active. Most snakes found in South Africa are harmless and beneficial in the ecosystem. However, the Poison Information Helpline of the Western Cape (PIHWC) urges people to watch their steps and pay close attention while enjoying outdoor activities during this time of the year.  

Snakes are usually not aggressive and will only bite when provoked. Snake bites usually occur when a snake is frightened, feels endangered and is forced to react in self-defence.

The PIHWC receives many calls concerning snakebites every year. During a five-year period (1 June 2015 – 31 May 2020), the PIHWC received 1 411 calls regarding snakebites. “3% of our calls were related to snakebites (51 704), as most calls involved poisoning exposures to pharmaceuticals (28 418) and non-drug chemicals (25 396). During the same period, 774 calls were received concerning spider bites and 858 concerning scorpion stings,” said Dr Carine Marks, Director of the Tygerberg Poison Information Centre.

The PIHWC is a 24-hour service provided jointly by the Tygerberg Poisons Information Centre and the Red Cross Children’s Hospital Poisons Information Centre. The public, as well as health workers can contact the PIHWC at 0861 555 777.

Dr Marks further advised the following:

“Before leaving for a hike, climbing, mountain biking or camping trip, find out where the nearest medical facility is and note the telephone number. In the case of a snakebite, get the patient to a medical facility as soon as possible. Phone ahead to notify them of the arrival of a snakebite victim. Note that, in most cases, you have a couple of hours before serious life-threatening symptoms manifest themselves. Immobilise the patient if possible. If alone, keep calm and do not walk too fast or run as it speeds up the distribution of the venom. Do not suck the bite site and do not apply a tourniquet.

ONLY in suspected neurotoxic bites (mamba or Cape cobra) is it recommended that you apply a wide crepe bandage firmly above the bite site (as tightly as for a sprained ankle) to slow the spread of venom to vital organs like the heart and lungs.
The life-threatening neurotoxic effects of the mamba and Cape cobra bites (such as difficulty in breathing) develop within 30 minutes to 4 hours.
If you are more than two hours away from medical assistance, respiratory support (e.g., mouth-to-mouth resuscitation) may be necessary.
The life-threatening effects of a cytotoxic snake bite (e.g., puff adder) develop late (6 to 24 hours). Comforting and reassuring the patient is a very important part of the first aid treatment.
Try to get a good description (or photo) of the snake.
Please note that antivenom should only be administered by the trained medical staff in a medical facility,” Dr Marks concluded.