Frequently Asked Questions
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I am planning a trip to the outback, including remote areas, and I am wondering whether I should take antivenom with me in case of snakebite?
It is not advisable to purchase antivenom as part of a general outback or extended camping trip. Nor do we advise it for isolated cattle or other stations. This is for several reasons. Firstly, anyone travelling in remote parts of Australia are far more likely to need medical attention from falls, motor vehicle accidents, dehydration and other accidents and illnesses, than for snakebite. Therefore the best preparation is to make a plan, in case of any of these events, to obtain help and get to medical attention. Preparation and prevention are the best ways to stay snake smart. If a bite does occur, then appropriate first aid the pressure-immobilisation technique is used to "stop the clock on the movement of venom" to allow the patient to get to medical care.
What is the most venomous Australian snake?
This question can be answered several ways. If we consider the question as - which snake has the most toxic venom - then our best answer is the inland or western taipan (also known as the fierce or small-scaled snake). An average bite or milking from this snake can potentially kill more laboratory mice than any other Australian snake. But this is an artificial test as this snake normally preys on the plague rat and no-one has tested its venom on that animal. Also, this snake lives far away from people in central Australia and has never been known to kill anyone (it's actually not very fierce at all but note that it can cause a potentially life-threatening illness). An alternative question is - which snake bites and kills more people than any other? This practical approach to the 'most dangerous snake' leads us to the brown snakes. There are 8 species of brown snakes which, as a group, are more widespread and cause more bites and deaths from snakebite than any other group of Australian snakes. The eastern brown is the leading cause of death from a single species. But when considering the risks from an individual snake bite, the coastal taipan is probably the most dangerous as, due to its multiple, rapid and highly efficient 'strikes', it is the snake most likely to successfully inject a potentially lethal amount of venom (it has the longest recorded fang length of any venomous Australian snake at 13mm).
What is the largest of Australia's venomous snakes?
The longest of our venomous snakes is the coastal taipan, which may grow up to 3.3 metres, but averages about 2.5 metres in length (note that according to the Queensland Museum, the longest recorded length for the coastal taipan as recorded in Australian museum collections is 2.9m - that snake, known as 'Terrence' to his friends, weighed 6.2kg!). The mulga snake is close behind, said to be able to grow up to 3 metres, but it averages about 1.5 metres. But where the mulga snake wins is that it is the heaviest of our venomous snakes and it has the world record for the greatest venom output from a single milking (1350mg). Fortunately death from mulga snake bite is now very rare (a specific antivenom is available and made by CSL Limited). The longest recorded non-venomous Australian snake is the scrub or amethystine python at 5.65m (from north Queensland).
I have seen a snake around my garden and I wonder how I can identify it ?
Some types of snake are very distinctive and can be readily identified from a distance. Examples include the large scrub pythons found in and around gardens in Queensland, the copperhead (the only snake that lives above the snowline in the Australian Alps) and the red-bellied black snake. However in general one needs to be very careful about the potential for the mis-identification of snakes due to the risk of thinking it is a harmless snake when in fact it is dangerous. This is particularly true of 'brown coloured' snakes. If you have a snake around your home it is best to call in an expert snake removalist than risk a misidentification. For interest check the AVRU website for some characteristics of the appearance, behaviour and habitat of the important venomous species. Your regional museum website should also have useful information on the snake in your area.
Can I get bitten by a snake in the city?
Yes. In fact, a recent snakebite fatality in Australia was a bite occurring in suburban Sydney. Indeed, previous snakebite deaths have occurred in suburban Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney and Perth. However this is less common than deaths in regional or rural areas of Australia.
Can I get bitten by a dead snake?
Yes. The biting reflex remains intact for many hours after the snake has died. Consequently there have been many cases of poisoning from the bites of dead snakes reported by doctors in Australia, the USA and elsewhere. That is why, if you find a dead snake you should be very careful about disposing of it to make sure neither you nor anyone else, especially children, can be harmed by it. This problem also reflects the fact that venom can remain toxic for a very long time after the snake has died, and a scratch from a fang could introduce venom under the skin. So 'stuffed' snakes, such as can be seen for sale in many Asian countries, and snake fangs, can be potentially very dangerous, just like a live snake.
How common is snakebite in Australia?
The true incidence of snakebite in Australia is unknown. Estimates suggest that there may be several thousand cases of snakebite in Australia each year. Of these perhaps 300 require treatment with antivenom. Surveys over recent years suggest a death rate of around 1-2 cases per year on average, although it is likely that the actual number of deaths is somewhat higher than this, due to unrecognised snakebite deaths. The most recent published survey of deaths from snakebite in Australia (Welton, 2016) found deaths were due to an anaphylactic event (0.16 deaths per 100 000 people) following a bee, wasp or tick bit or sting, snake envenoming (0.13 deaths per 100 000 people) or box jellyfish envenoming (0.01 deaths per 100 000 people). Only 44% of cases involving anaphylaxis reached medical care prior to death, compared to 74% of those envenomed by snakes. Over half of all deaths (52%) occurred at home, and 64% of these occurred within a major city or inner regional area, with 48% of anaphylaxis deaths work related. Hospital admission rates of 199 per 100 000 persons over the 11 years were caused by contact with wasps or bees (31%), spiders (30%) and snakes (15%) with cases predominantly male of age range of 30-44 years. Most bites occur during the warmer months, when snakes are more active.
Do you have any general comments about snakebite?
- Even though not all snakes are venomous it is best, from a first aid point of view, to consider all snakes as dangerous.
- Sometimes only a small amount or no venom is injected, even if puncture marks are present.
- At least 95% of bites occur on the limbs. Around 75% involve the lower limb.
- The venom is injected quite deeply. Little venom is removed by incision or excision (cutting or sucking), and this potentially dangerous practice is to be discouraged. Appropriate first aid for venomous snake bites is the pressure-immobilisation technique.
Is there any truth in the email rumour that the brown recluse spider is spreading across Australia?
As of mid-2008, an email began to circulate that the brown recluse spider is increasing in numbers and spreading across Australia. The email usually has attachments, including a picture of the spider and graphic photos of the damage caused by its bite. The spider in the photos is usually Loxosceles, known as the recluse spider or fiddleback. The tissue damage in the photos really was attributable to a spider such as the one shown. HOWEVER, the spider (or a closely-related type) has only been found in the Adelaide region and only infrequently. There are no genuine reports of its distribution expanding, and no genuine reports of it causing tissue damage in Australia.
UPDATE: the hoax email has now had the logo of the Australian Red Cross added in an attempt to make it more believable. The Australian Red Cross do not send unsolicited emails with health warnings, and are not associated with this email hoax.
I have found a spider and wonder whether it can be used for venom research ?
There are very few laboratories researching spider venom because it is hard to gather enough spiders to collect much venom, unlike the copious amounts of venom produced by milking snakes. The AVRU has done work on various spider venoms, including that of the redback, white-tailed and cupboard spiders. At present redback spiders are being used by Venom Supplies of Tanunda in the Barossa Valley for the provision of venom for CSL, in Melbourne, to produce redback spider antivenom. Similarly, in Gosford, New South Wales, at the Australian Reptile Park, funnelweb spiders are milked for their venom for the production of CSL's funnelweb spider antivenom. You can learn more about Venom Supplies and the Australian Reptile Park by visiting the "Links" section of the AVRU website.
Do white-tailed spiders cause skin ulceration?
White-tailed spiders are found in most areas of Australia, and are common in urban dwellings. They are readily identifiable by their cylindrical body shape and the presence of a white or grey spot on the end on their abdomen. They are active hunters, preying upon other types of spiders, and may be found roaming inside houses, especially in warmer weather. White-tailed spiders have been implicated in some cases of necrotising arachnidism (skin breakdown or ulceration following spider bites) but this is a rare event at best. The majority of white-tailed spider bites do not cause skin ulceration, although itching and redness are common and may last several days.
Is daddy-long-legs venom extremely powerful?
It is a commonly-held belief that the venom of daddy-long-legs (Pholcus phalangoides) spiders is extremely potent and that it is only the small size of their fangs that means they can’t penetrate human skin and therefore can’t present a serious threat. The truth of the matter is that there is no evidence suggesting that their venom is particularly harmful to humans. It is thought that the idea that they possess deadly venom arises from their ability to kill redback spiders, whose venom is highly dangerous to humans, and that the venom of daddy-long-legs must therefore be more powerful, but this reasoning is false. The only hazard from a daddy-long-legs is the risk of inflammation if the spider is accidentally squashed near your eye.
I live in Victoria and have just dug up a black spider in a hole in my garden - could it be a funnel web spider ?
Yes, although less well-known than their northern cousins, the ACT, Victoria,Tasmania and south Australia all have species of funnel web spiders. Fortunately, although people have been bitten from these other areas, only the spiders in the ACT seem (so far) capable of delivering a medically significant bite. However if you are bitten by a large black hairy spider in these other areas, you should treat it as for funnel web spider bites from NSW and Queensland (which are definitely known to be very dangerous). The correct first aid is the pressure-immobilisation technique combining a pressure bandage along the whole bitten limb, a splint and immobilisation of the patient whilst they are transported to medical attention. On the other hand, many suspected funnel web spiders brought into museums in these areas of Australia actually turn out to be trapdoor spiders (they are typically brown and not black). If in doubt apply the appropriate first aid and treat as for a funnel web spider. If you have collected a spider and want it identified - see your local museum.
I have heard of the mouse spider - is it dangerous and does it eat mice ?
The 'mouse' spider is actually a group of eight different species of related spiders distributed throughout Australia. They do not eat mice! Their name comes from the idea that they dig mouse-like burrows in the ground. They do have burrows but they are nothing to do with mice! Although it is unusual to suffer serious effects from the bite of this type of spider, it is possible, especially in young children. Indeed, some years ago a child was bitten by a male of one of the species (an eastern mouse spider) in south east Queensland, and rapidly developed a critical illness similar to that of the funnel web spider (and responded well to funnel web spider antivenom). However most reported bites do not cause a systemic illness. Hence, just to be safe, these spiders should be regarded as potentially dangerous and therefore the appropriate first aid is as for a funnel web spider (pressure-immobilisation).
How do I identify spiders?
The images together with the spider descriptions may be of some assistance in identifying common Australian spiders. If you have a spider you would like to identify, try the Victorian Museum's key to spider identification. Some museums may be able to identify spiders for the public; phone to ask if this is possible at your local museum. Some pest control companies or local councils may be able to identify common spiders found in domestic settings.
There are several excellent publications that may be useful in identifying spiders. Some examples are:
"Australian Spiders in Colour", by Ramon Mascord
"Spiders commonly found in Melbourne and surrounding regions", from the Museum of Victoria
"Spiderwatch A Guide to Australian Spiders " by Bert Brunet
What spiders are venomous?
All but a very few species of spiders are venomous; they use venom to catch and digest their prey. The most important Australian venomous spiders from a medical point of view are the Sydney funnel web spider (Atrax robustus) and related funnel webs (Hadronyche species) and the redback spider (Latrodectus hassselti). Other potentially dangerous species include the mouse spiders (Missulena species) and the brown house or cupboard spiders (Steatodaspecies).
Very little is known about the majority of Australian spiders and their venoms, and all spiders should be treated with a healthy respect. Even less venomous spiders can inflict a painful bite.
What spiders are commonly found in Australia?
An assorted collection of spiders that are commonly found in Australia:
- Huntsman (Isopeda sp. Neosparassus sp.)
- Black window spider (black house spider) (Badumna sp.)
- Brown house spider (cupboard spider) (Steatoda sp.)
- Orb weaving spiders (Epiphora sp., other species)
- Trapdoor spiders (Multiple species)
- Wolf spiders (Lycosa sp.)
- Daddy long legs (Pholcus phalangioides)
- Jumping spiders (Multiple species)
- Bird-eating spiders (also called barking spiders or whistling spiders) (Selenocosmia sp.)
I am planning a holiday in northern Australia and would like to know when it is safe to "go in the water" as far as jellyfish stings are concerned ?
In general dangerous jellyfish stings are associated with the summer months - the traditional "stinger season". However there are exceptions to the rule! Although you are pretty safe from serious jellyfish stings whilst swimming in north Queensland during the Australian winter, box jellyfish stings have been recorded in the Northern Territory in every month of the year (and every month except June and July in Queensland). Interestingly, the Chironex-type box jellyfish stings are commonest in January, in both Qld and the NT, whereas Irukandji stings peak in December in Qld and in May in the NT ! So the best policy is to wear a stinger suit whenever you go swimming in tropical Australia. Note that other biting and stinging marine creatures are present throughout the year (e.g. stingrays, sea snakes, stonefish, coral, crocodiles, sharks).
I am planning a holiday to north Queensland but will only be snorkling and diving offshore - do I have to worry about jellyfish stings ?
Yes! Although the most dangerous jellyfish is the Chironex-type box jellyfish (it can kill in minutes) that is only usually found very close to shore, you can still get stung by nasty jellyfish whilst snorkeling and diving. The biggest concern is the Irukandji jellyfish. Many serious cases of this type of jellyfish sting occur whilst swimming off the offshore islands and on reefs well offshore. However >90% of these cases could have been prevented by the use of stinger suits (usually available for hire). So to avoid jellyfish stings swim in the winter months and wear a stinger suit.
I am planning a holiday in Thailand and would whether I can swim safely without worrying about jellyfish stings ?
Unfortunately, you should be just as aware of jellyfish stings in Thailand and other Asian countries as you would be in northern Australia. Similar jellyfish (box and Irukandji jellyfish) seem to be present elsewhere in the Indo-pacific. In fact the last death of an adult Australian from a box-type jellyfish occured a few years ago when a young Victorian man was fatally stung whilst on holidays in southern Thailand. Within a few days of his death a Swiss tourist also died in the same area of Thailand. We have also recently reported a probable case of Irukandji-type jellyfish sting in southern Thailand and others have recently reported cases in the Caribbean. Box jellyfish stings have also caused deaths in Malaysia, Vietnam, PNG, Philippines, Indonesia and Japan as well as in the Gulf of Mexico (Texas).
I have had a reaction to a sting from an ant [bee | wasp] involving redness and a large area of swelling (in some cases quite severe) lasting several days. Am I likely to react this way or worse if bitten again?
You have probably developed a large local allergic reaction to the sting. You may well develop a similar large local reaction in the future if you are stung again. This usually responds to topical and/or oral steroids. This is distinct from a generalised allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) that is evident by rashes, wheezing or difficulty breathing, faintness or dizziness from low blood pressure and, in severe cases, unconsciousness or worse. These generalised allergic reactions seem to be due to a different immune response and so the presence of large local reactions does not predict generalised reactions and vice-versa. The generalised allergic reactions are treated with intramuscular adrenaline injections. For further advice you may wish to have your GP refer you to an allergist or immunologist.
I am a Jehovah's Witness and would like to know more about antivenom and how it is made.
Antivenom is made from blood plasma. In most but not all cases it comes from the blood of horses. For example, Australian snake antivenoms are made in horses but the standard American rattlesnake antivenom is now made in sheep. Other examples are the funnel web spider antivenom that is made in rabbits and the box jellyfish antivenom that is made in sheep. In these cases the antivenom is not blood or plasma itself but a purified fraction of that plasma, specifically refined antibody fragments. Due to the complexity of venom it seems unlikely that synthetic, non-blood product related antivenoms will be commercially produced in the near future.