Lyle Brotherton, Trail Magazine contributor: “When I was struck by a British adder (Viper berus), while on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula in west Scotland last summer, I felt relatively relaxed in the knowledge that few adults have died from their bites, and that I knew exactly what to do. How wrong I was!
“It was a typical strike: I had unwittingly placed my foot on a rock immediately next to the adder, and it struck me in self-defence, after giving a short warning hiss. I instinctively moved backwards, alerted the rest of the party and looked for any other snakes nearby before I sat down and rolled up my gaiters and trouser leg, carefully examining my shin. The adder’s fangs had not managed to penetrate through my outer garments, and thus I was saved what
I now know to be excruciating pain and frequently enduring after-effects of a British adder bite. My fellow team members all proffered different advice: ‘Lie still’; ‘Apply a tourniquet’; ‘Pour lots of water over it’.
“But none of the above is correct! We soon realised that not one of us, including me, really knew what to do. Then, when later I chatted with other Mountain Rescue team members, they too were equally unsure.”
Knowing how to avoid been bitten in the first place, and knowing exactly what to do if you are bitten, is must-have info. David Lalloo, Professor of Tropical Medicine, is a world expert on snakes and the treatment of snake bites. Here he details what to do if you do fall victim to a British adder…
ADDERS: KEY FACTS
The adder (aka viper) is Britain’s only venomous native snake, and it’s found on mainland Britain and some islands off the west coast of Scotland. It hibernates during the winter months.
It is identified by dark diamond patterns on its back and its quite small size (rarely more than 60cm in length; grass snakes can be double this).
Half of bites are to people’s hands, usually occurring when either putting a hand into a recess in rock or trying to pick an adder up!
For every four strikes, an adder will successfully bite a person. With just over 100 people a year being admitted to UK hospitals due to an adder bite, that means an annual total of over 400 people have an adder strike at them. For every 10 bites (with fang punctures proving that the skin was penetrated) five will result in no injection of venom – the so-called ‘dry bite’ phenomenon.
Pet dogs are just as likely to be struck and the effects are more severe, as venom concentrations are higher than in humans because of their lower body weight. Bites occur between February and October, peaking in June to August. Human deaths are rare, with no more than a dozen in the last 100 years, but non-fatal bites are much more common and strikes more frequent still.
The adder is protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981).
The effects of adder bites range from localised pain and swelling to severe pain and symptoms that persist for up to 9 months in 25 per cent of all victims. In rare cases they can be fatal.
WHAT'S A BITE LIKE?
Immediate sharp pain from one or two small holes where the fang(s) have penetrated the skin
A sensation of tingling and local swelling that spreads from the wound
Spreading pain, tenderness and inflammation
Reddish lines and bruising appear; a whole limb may become swollen and bruised
- The earliest and most distinctive symptoms are fainting associated with itching skin, hives, wheezing, and swelling of the lips and mouth.
IF YOU ARE BITTEN...
1 Move out of range of further strikes and other snakes.
2 Inform the rest of your party what has just happened, and encourage them to be careful.
3 Leave the bite wound completely alone.
4 Remove all rings / jewellery on the bitten limb.
5 If the bite is on a hand or arm, immobilise it with an improvised splint/sling. Do not tightly wrap the wound.
6 If there is any impairment of vital functions like airway, respiration, blood-flow or heart function, support these as a priority.
7Identify on your map the quickest route to habitation or the nearest road (unlikely to be your planned start / finish point).
8Dial 112 or 999, ask for an ambulance and tell them that you have been bitten by an adder, inform them where you are heading and arrange to meet them there. Give them an accurate grid reference and any other location clues you can see there, such as road names or building nearby; this is your RP (rendezvous point).
9If you can’t get through to 112 or 999 on your mobile, text the emergency services from it (see www.lfto.com/112 for details on how to register for this service) and keep dialling them en route to your RP.
10 When you reach your RP – either habitation or a road – if the ambulance is not already there, stop any vehicle and ask them to take you to the nearest hospital; don’t wait for the ambulance.
Do not wait for help to come to you, unless you are absolutely sure it will be there in less than 30 minutes and that you will be transported off the hill in a vehicle or on a stretcher. (Mountain Rescue rarely gets to casualties in less than 2 hours.)
How to prevent a bite
Look out for warning notices on heaths and commons, and be generally aware adders might be about.
Wear walking boots and long trousers, and ideally gaiters (good for preventing ticks too).
Never put your hand into a hole or crevice, for example between rocks. If you need to retrieve something, stand well back and use a stick to reach it.
Never pick up a snake, even if you think it is harmless or appears dead.
If you are very close to an adder, stand completely still for couple of minutes then back away very slowly. If you remain calm and still, the snake will depart without harming you.
This article originally appeared in Trail Magazine's July 2014 edition.