Snakes, spiders & ticks

Treating snake, spider and tick bites

One of the major fears of Australian mountain bikers is that of being bitten by a venomous snake, spider or tick. In reality the risk to life from these creatures is small: Australian snakes are generally timid and will attempt to escape rather than confront people; very few spider species are venomous; and tick bites are very easy to treat.

All mountain bikers who regularly venture into the Australian bush are encouraged to take a First Aid course. Principles such as DRABC procedure for dealing with casualties, and general principals of bushcraft are beyond the scope of this FAQ (unless someone wants to have a crack at writing them!).

For the trivial few dollars it costs, ambulance cover might one day spare you the price of an expensive helicopter ride home.

The first rule of dealing with a snake is to leave it alone. Most snake bites occur because the victim attempted to catch or kill the snake. Australian snakes are not generally aggressive, and will avoid the presence of people if possible. A rider or walker in the bush usually makes enough noise to inspire the snake to scarper.

In the unlikely event a member of your group is bitten, here's what to do:

Reassure the victim. Deaths from snake bite are extremely rare. All hospitals keep antivenin and this is effective in treating a bite. A calm patient is easier to treat, and remaining calm helps limit the spread of venom in the body.

Send one or two members of the group to fetch help. Ideally at least two people should stay with the casualty, while two go for help. Ensure that those going for help can accurately describe the location of the casualty.

Apply compression-immobilisation bandaging to the injured limb. Using broad elastic bandage, wrap the injured limb, starting at the wound, wrapping to the end of the arm or leg, then wrapping all the way back to the armpit or groin.

Apply a splint to the wounded limb.

Prevent the casualty from moving

Compression-immobilisation bandaging works by preventing the flow of fluid in the lymphatic system. The lymph, NOT the blood, carries venom from a bite. Since lymph flow is propelled by muscle movement not by the heart, it is vital to keep the casualty from moving until help arrives.

Funnel web spider bites are treated in the same way as snake bites, with compression-immobilisation bandaging.

Redback spiders are rare in the bush, preferring as they seem to, the company of humans and the easy pickings round their houses. Redback bites are excruciatingly painful, too much so for compression-immobilisation bandaging to be possible. A redback bite should be treated with a cold compress to relieve the pain and medical assistance should be sought urgently.

While paralysis ticks do not pose a life-threatening risk to adults, they can still make you pretty ill. Folk techniques for their removal such as paraffin and simple pulling can stress the tick enough that it disgorges its toxic stomach contents into the wound, which is not a desirable outcome. The best technique, as suggested by MTB-OZ member and research etymologist Stephen Doggett is to first kill the tick with DEET (the active ingredient in insect repellent), then pull it off.

Ticks rarely travel alone, so the casualty should be thoroughly searched for more ticks, They like to hide in hair and in body crevices such as behind the ears, armpits and groin. Tick inspection is a popular post-ride pastime for some mountain biking couples. 

If the casualty does not recover after a few hours, seek medical attention.

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