Advice on Adder Bites

Last updated: 30/06/20

Advice on Adder Bites

In this article we’ll discuss bites from Adders – the UK’s only venomous snake, and something you may well see if out walking, if you are lucky! They usually like to bask in the sun on rocks, and will be more surprised to see you than you are of it! If you do see one, stay calm, keep your distance and let it move away in it’s own time. They often sense you approaching and will move away before you even know they are there.

Often its dogs that disturb Adders, and bites can be quite dangerous for smaller dogs, but much less so for humans.

What does an adder look like?

Adders have a distinctive diamond / zig-zag pattern. They may be grey, brown or rarely, black. Adults are between 40-70cm long.

What to do if you are bitten by an Adder

1. Stay Calm

If you get bitten most importantly – don’t panic, stay calm. It is likely that little venom has actually been dispensed. However, minimising your movements limits the pumping of any venom around the blood system and towards the heart.

2. Clean the bite

The area of the bite should be washed to remove any venom from the skin. Use clean water or a medi-wipe. You might put a ‘cold compress’ on the bite site but do not apply ice packs. A cold compress could be bandage or other material soaked in cool water.

3. Keep the bite low

Keep the bitten limb below the heart height to slow spread of any venom. Assuming it is their leg that has been bitten, sit the casualty down on a rock, tree stump, or backpack, with their leg downhill. Loosen clothing on the affected limb and remove jewellery.

If the casualty has more serious reactions, call 999/112 and get an ambulance. Put the casualty in the Recovery Position and lower the affected limb below the level of the heart.

Monitor their vital signs regularly. It’s good practice to note these down and hand them to the ambulance service when they arrive. You can download a free Casualty Monitoring card from our website.

4. Avoid ‘bad’ first aid!

Most ‘traditional’ first-aid techniques (that you may have seen in films!) do more harm than good; cutting into the wound is harmful and why would you want to suck up the poisoned blood and put poison into your own system? Tourniquets are dangerous. The suction and electrical inactivation devices you may have seen have no evidence showing they work effectively.

5. Reassure the casualty and seek medical support.

It is likely the bite will be painful, cause swelling, tingling and distress. However as long as the casualty doesn’t have an underlying health problem they should be OK. Let the casualty take their time, after an initial period of 20-30 minutes the casualty may stand slowly and start to walk out with support and head for the nearest A&E Department.

Make sure you know exactly where you are and where the nearest road access is for the ambulance.

What are the signs and symptoms?

The signs and symptoms will vary with the health and fitness of the casualty but generally are:

  • 2 puncture wounds although sometimes there may be 1 or 3!
  • numbness and tingling around the wound
  • nausea and drowsiness
  • Rarely – anaphylactic shock

Adders use their venom to subdue their prey, mainly lizards and small mammals. The venom is designed to incapacitate their prey by causing haemotoxic effects which effects their blood cells and tissues.

Sometimes they do ‘dry bites’ where no venom is injected, although you may still have some symptoms from the bite. First aid response is the same as you won’t know if venom has been injected or not until you are assessed in hospital.

Can you die from an adder bite?

Statistically you have more chance of being killed by a wasp than dying from a bite from Britain’s only venomous snake. The last death from an adder bite in the UK was in 1975. With increased response emergency services times and awareness of the public, an adder bite today will probably mean a trip to the hospital and possibly an overnight stay for observations. Very rarely, people have severe reactions to the venom so it’s always best to seek medical help if you’re bitten.

What about children or the elderly?

If the casualty is a child or an elderly adult there would be more concerns. Their smaller body weight means any toxins would have a greater effect so it would be recommended that you call 999/112 straight away. However the advice above still remains the same. Keep calm, avoid lots of movement, and reassure the casualty.

Don’t chase the snake!

The snake will have struck in self defence and very likely disappeared very quickly. Do not be tempted to try and catch it. If you caught site of it and can describe it to the medical professionals that will help, but don’t worry if you aren’t able to. The casualty is likely to have quite clearly identifiable puncture wounds with which the injury can be recognised.

What if it’s not an adder?

You don’t have to identify the snake before you call 999. A swab will be taken at the hospital to identify the venom, if any, and treat you accordingly.

The zig zag pattern on the adder is distinctive. If it does not have this it could be slow worm – these are actually legless lizards and are smaller, generally 30-40 cm with a smooth brown skin with darker markings down the sides. They are found throughout the UK.

Other snakes found in the southern parts of the UK are the grass snake and smooth snake. Grass snakes are large, typically 70 – 100 cm and can be identified by their distinctive black and yellow markings behind the head. Smooth snakes are rare are small, 45 – 55 cm, and are grey-brown with bars or paired blotches along its back.

If it’s not one of these (remember, don’t chase it to identify it!) it may be an escaped pet or from a zoological collection. Most pet snakes are not venomous but can still cause a local reaction such as swelling or irritation.

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