India has a vast diversity of snakes, of which a few are venomous. One needs to be aware of these venomous snakes and precautions to be taken to reduce human-snake conflicts. Of course, there is no single rule for identifying a venomous snake, as many non-venomous ones have evolved to look like their venomous brethren. However, some of the more medically important ones can be recognized by their shape, size, colour, behaviour and the sound they make when threatened.
- Spectacled Cobra or Common Cobra – Identified by a spectacled mark on the hind of its forehead and its ability to spread its hood and hiss. This snake is revered across the country and is found in all habitats.
- Russell’s Viper – Identified by dark brown, chain-like markings on its body coupled with a triangular head and a highly audible pressure-cooker-like hiss. This snake is found all across the country and enters homes in search of rodents and small birds.
- Saw-scaled Viper – Identified by a trident shaped mark on its head and a distinct side-winding movement. It is found in all parts of the state. The scales of this snake, when rubbed together, make a sound akin to a saw on a log of wood; hence its name.
- Common Krait – Identified by it metallic black body with white markings. This nocturnal snake is uncommon in urban areas but is found in rural areas in the country.
- King Cobra – Identified by its characteristic hood, large length (often crossing 10 feet) and a blackish-grey body with bands. The King cobra cannot be mistaken for any other snake. This species is found only in India’s forests and records of bites are rare.
- Pit Vipers – Identified by their triangular heads and heat sensing pits. India has over 21 species of pit vipers, of which some like the Hump-nosed, the Green Pit Viper and the Malabar Pit Viper are being considered as medically important. While work still continues on whether their bite is fatal to humans, these species are venomous and found only in dense forest habitat
- Reassure the victim who may be very anxious and scared.
- Immobilise the bitten limb with a splint or sling (any movement or muscular contraction increases absorption of venom into the bloodstream).
- Consider pressure immobilisation for bites by elapid snakes (snakes with short, erect fangs) like the Indian Cobra, Indian Krait and sea snakes. This should not be used for viper bites because of the danger of increasing the local effects of the necrotic venom. There is considerable debate of which technique to be used and I have personally found the use of a local compression pad applied over the wound, pressure-bandaging the entire limb, to be very effective.
- Avoid any interference with the bite wound as this may introduce infection, increase absorption of the venom and increase local bleeding.
- Remove watches, rings and other jewellery from the site of the bite.
- Note the time of the bite and the sequence of symptoms.
- If possible, the patient should not be allowed to walk, but carried with the help of a stretcher, bed, or sitting on a chair.
To summarise – the best possible first-aid for a venomous snakebite victim is to rush him/her to the nearest hospital in the least possible time, with any movement (especially of the bitten limb) reduced to an absolute minimum.
- Suck out venom.
- Make local incisions or pricks / punctures at the site of the bite or in the bitten limb.
- Go to traditional healers or anything similar.
- Use (black) snake stones.
- Apply electric shock.
- Try out home remedies.
- Tie tight tourniquets around the limb.
- Apply ice packs, potassium permanganate, or other chemicals and herbs.
- Clean out the bitten part with Dettol, etc.
- Try and catch / kill the snake.
Suggestions to Reduce Snakebite Accidents and Conflicts
- Be aware of snakes found in your locality, their general habits and learn to identify the venomous ones from the non-venomous ones.
- Be vigilant and alert during specific times of snake activity – at dawn, dusk, during heavy showers, flooding, at harvest and winnowing times.
- Always use a torch while walking at night and wear proper footwear if you are walking through vegetation or thick undergrowth.
- Avoid sleeping on the ground and near dark, humid corners. Avoid cradles and beds that are closer to the ground, for children.
- Do not go very close to a snake; observe from a distance. Never threaten, handle or attack a snake with sticks, insect sprays, fire or any such improvised devices or weapons.
- If a snake is unintentionally trapped or cornered in any part of your home, keep an eye on the snake and call for assistance from the wildlife rescue squad or local snake-rescue volunteers who will rescue and release them in safe habitats.
- Avoid hoarding rubble, rubbish and unwanted items in or around your homes. These provide hiding places for rodents, and are then inhabited by snakes.
- Do not attempt to pick up or handle a dead snake on the road or elsewhere. Many times, the snake is still not brain dead and can inflict a bite. Do not touch or pick up sea snakes that have been washed or stranded on the beach. They are venomous too.
- Avoid disturbances to forest patches and green areas that are potential snake habitats. This way, the snakes get their niche habitats and we get our safety too. Co-existence is the key in today’s world of nature conservation.
- Be aware of the nearest health center or hospital that treats snakebites and keep their phone-numbers handy.
Poisons are toxic substances that exist inside or on the surface of a plant or animal, and they cause pain or death when they come in contact with another animal’s skin, mouth or digestive system. Not injected directly, they are absorbed through exposure. It usually happens when a poisonous creature is bitten or swallowed, but sometimes handling a poisonous creature is also enough.
Amphibians’ skin secretions fall under the poisonous category, but calling them irritants is a better way to describe many, because most skin secretions are not life threatening especially where India is concerned.
These two terms are clearly distinct in their meanings as well as effects, but lay-people often confuse and interchange them. In fact, most people prefer not to learn the details and are satisfied with being at a respectable distance from potential venomous and poisonous creatures. However, understanding the difference could be the key to an effective treatment.