The six most common bites and stings and how to treat them

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Flaviemys purvisi

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Oct 28, 2017
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By Adrianna Zappavigna
18th Dec 2018
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About 70 per cent of all bites & deaths to humans and animals in Australia are caused by the brown snake

WITH a scorching summer ahead of us, Aussies are bracing for some of the best months of the year.

The season ushers in warmer temps, beach activities and fun in the sun. But it also brings some aggressive wildlife out of hiding.

Australia is home to many of the world's most venomous creatures and experts are warning to be well aware of what can bite them and what that looks like.

With the worst drought in 400 years and above-average temperatures expected, experts are predicting a sharp increase in bites and stings this summer.

It's not just in the bush where you can get bitten or stung - encounters that might require a rapid emergency response can happen anywhere, with dangerous creatures dwelling in unlikely habitats like the beach, and the CBD.
Bites from a redback spider require immediate medical attention.

"In extreme cases, venomous bites and stings can be fatal if inappropriately managed. Knowing how to respond immediately can be the difference between survival and death," said Associate Professor Julian White, Head of Toxinology at the Women's and Children's Hospital in South Australia.

Professor Julian tells how to recognise the six most common bites and stings and what to do when they happen.


The most common spider bite requiring medical assistance is by a red back spider.

Being "envenomed" by a red back is a deeply unpleasant experience with the overwhelming majority of patients reporting severe pain; profuse sweating and; elevated blood pressure.

Death from a spider bite of this type is unlikely, even if untreated, but prepare to suffer at length. Effects can last for days on end.

If you are bitten or suspect you have been bitten, seek medical attention. Australian red back spider antivenom is the most effective treatment.
When it comes to a red back spider bite (above) only the female bite is dangerous. Picture: Associate Professor Julian White


Unlike red back spider bites, coming on the wrong side of snake in Australia can kill you. Most bites and fatalities are caused by "brown" snakes (genus Pseudonaja).

Brown snakes are responsible for around two deaths in Australia every year and are known to be aggressive.

The bite itself can be painless, or cause only minor discomfort, with little to see at the bite site. Even fang marks can be indistinct, because brown snake fangs are small.

It is possible to be bitten by a brown snake without the patient being aware they have even been bitten.

Brown snake toxins are potent with powerful anti coagulants that puts the patient at risk of potentially catastrophic bleeding.

The major threat to life is early collapse with cardiac arrest caused by neurotoxins in the venom. All bites from a brown snake must be treated immediately by a medical professional.
With no obvious bite site, identifying a a brown snake bite can prove difficult. Picture: Associate Professor Julian White

When brown snakes strike, they release the quickest killing venom in the world


Tiger snakes (genus Notechis) were historically considered the most common cause of major snakebites in Australia.

Tiger snake venom contains powerful anti coagulants, affection the blood, causing increased bleeding. This can lead to severe paralysis, severe muscle destruction and can cause kidney damage.

The bite is often felt and may be locally painful, sometimes with local swelling and bruising.
A one year old Tiger Snake found in Tasmania. Picture: Matt Thompson


Members of the "black snake" genus (Pseudechis) include the red bellied black snake, common in South East and eastern mainland Australia and the mulga snake (sometimes called the "king brown"), common throughout inland and Northern Australia.

Mulga snake and black snake bites cause significant local pain and swelling at the bite site and can cause muscle destruction and a different type of blood clotting abnormality. They are however less likely to cause major bleeding problems.

Mulga snake bites can cause very severe muscle destruction.
Mulga snakes bite savagely and may hang on and chew as they inject their venom, causing localised swelling. Picture: Associate Professor Julian White

Australian Snake Catchers' Sean Cade with a red-bellied black snake in North Queensland.


Taipans (genus Oxyuranus) include several species and are technically considered to be the most dangerous snakes in the world.

This is because of their large fangs, copious venom production and extremely potent venom.

The bite is usually felt and fang marks obvious, painful, sometimes with local swelling, occasionally bruising and frequent rapid development of major envenoming which can include severe interference with the bloods' ability to clot, paralysis, muscle damage and kidney damage.

Surprisingly, with appropriate treatment, survival is likely. Prompt and effective first aid, including use of a pressure bandage and immobilisation will improve the likelihood of a happy outcome for the patient.
If left untreated, a bite from an inland taipan has the potential to kill someone in 45 minutes. Picture: Associate Professor Julian White

A coastal taipan.


Now found only in parts of mainland Australia, reported attacks by the death adder genus (Acanthophis) are somewhat infrequent.

The bite is usually felt, with obvious fang marks, local pain, sometimes mild swelling. The patient may initially feel fine, before the slow onset of progressive paralysis. This can cause repiratory failuire but can take hours to become apparent.
A death adder found in a resident’s pool in Cairns. Picture: Teresa Stephens

In addition to prompt application of a pressure immobilisation bandage, it is important to look for developing paralysis and support the patient's breathing, if impaired. In severe cases this may require mouth-to-mouth or similar forms of breathing support.
Though death adders possess the longest fangs of any Australian snake, their bites (above) are infrequent
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