News

Snake bite victims urged to seek emergency care

People bitten by snakes should to go to hospital immediately for assessment and treatment, doctors have said.

Around 50 to 100 people are bitten by venomous adder snakes in the UK each year – mostly in summer – but many do not urgently seek medical care.

Fourteen people have been bitten and received hospital treatment for adder bites in the UK over the past month. Some of these patients arrived at hospital too late for treatment to be effective.

Disability

Delaying treatment following a bite puts them at higher risk of long term disability, researchers say.

Some adder bites do not inject venom and may not require treatment – though doctors say they should still be monitored for potential problems.

Antivenom

In some cases bites can cause patients to faint. They can also cause the tongue to swell up, which can lead to breathing problems.

Patients who experience symptoms should get urgent treatment with antivenoms, which are held by most emergency departments in the UK, doctors say.

Swelling

The most common consequences of poisonous adder bites are swelling and bruising, which can extend from the hand to the chest wall or from the foot to the groin. This can be made worse by having to walk back to a road to reach transport.

Antivenom for adder bites can substantially reduce the severity of swelling if given early. Delaying treatment, however, can lead to intense swelling and pain of the bitten limb and mobility problems that require long-term physiotherapy.

Adders

Adders are the only species of poisonous snake found on our shores. Bites are more common in the summer months, when snakes are more active and people are outside enjoying the countryside.

Adders can be identified by their distinctive zig-zag markings along the body and a dark-coloured V-shape on the head.

The majority of incidents occur when the snakes are accidentally disturbed or deliberately antagonised.

Treatment is much more effective if given early and we would urge victims to get to hospital as quickly as possible. Not all will require antivenom but those who do will get it quickly, limiting the extent of the swelling and the long-term complications. If at all possible, people should not walk long distances after the bite but use friends and mobile phones to seek help.

Michael EddlestonProfessor of Clinical Toxicology, University of Edinburgh and Consultant Physician, National Poisons Information Service

Related links

Edinburgh Medical School

National Poisons Information Service

NHS Choices - Snake bites

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