How to treat Australia's deadly bites and stings

Lucy-Mae Beers

While Australia is home to some of the world's deadliest animals, most people are not sure what to do when dealing with a venomous bite or sting.

Snakes, spiders and marine animals caused more than 40,000 hospitalisations from 2001-2013, but only 11 per cent of Australians regularly refresh their first aid knowledge, new research has found.

Many might be unaware that the immediate first aid for a funnel web spider is the same as for a venomous snake, or that walking yourself to hospital might not always be the best move.

Associate Professor Bill Nimo, from the Epworth Richmond Emergency Department, has revealed the most effective and safest ways to administer first aid for the most venomous bites.

Those bitten by a red-bellied black often present with drowsiness and muscle pain. Photo: Getty


While many Australians assume you would immediately feel a snake bite, often this is not the case and can be confused with a small cut from a stray stick.

Dr Nimo said their fangs are often smaller than the tips of needles used to immunise and one may even have broken off during a bite.

This means those suspecting to have been bitten should not only look for bites with two puncture marks but also monitor their symptoms.

Those bitten by a red-bellied black or an Eastern brown snake often present with drowsiness and muscle pain as the venom is absorbed by the lymphatic system.

In children, this may mimic heat stroke as the venom affects the neurological system and makes the victim drowsy.

The best course of action for those who know they are bitten by a venomous snake is to call Triple-0, compress the area with an elastic bandage and keep the victim still to slow down the absorption.

"Both immobilisation and the bandage are equally as important. Lots of people think they can just walk out of the bush with the bandage, but they can’t," Dr Nimo told Yahoo7.

The best course of action for those who know they are bitten by an eastern brown snake is to, call Triple-0 and compress the area. Photo: Getty

The compression bandage should be as firm as if you were treating a sprained ankle.

Dr Nimo said the best way to avoid a snake bite is to wear enclosed shoes when out in the bush and to slowly walk away if coming into contact with one.

"You might get a brown snake or taipan that’ll rear up, but it’s all bravado. Just back away," Dr Nimo said.

Dr Nimo said there is no need to panic when bitten as hospitals can provide the appropriate anti-venom to neutralise the wound.

He also said there is a 50 per cent chance the snake will administer a "dry bite" with no venom injected if the snake feels threatened.

The spider Australians cross paths with most often is the redback. Photo: Getty


Over the summer months, the warmer weather sees spiders out in full force as they search for food and a mate.

The spider Australians cross paths with most often is the redback, whose bite can cause envenomation syndrome.

"A lot of people are freaked out by them, but the positive is that the redback is easily identifiable. Everyone knows what they look like," Dr Nimo said.

The molecules in redback venom are larger than others and is not absorbed by the lymphatic system as quickly.

"You might not see or feel it. The pain from a redback bite develops over hours," Dr Nimo said.

He said the sensation from a redback bite is more of an "irritation" and victims should monitor their symptoms rather than "completely freak out."

Patients can experience heavy sweating as the venom affects the nervous system or can have loss of coordination.

Victims should place an ice pack on the affected area and go to hospital for anti-venom if they are concerned about their symptoms.

While redback venom is absorbed slowly and can be monitored, the small-molecule venom from a funnel-web spider travels through the system much faster.

Funnel-webs are common on Australia's east coast and their venom can be absorbed quickly. Photo: Getty

Funnel-webs are common on Australia's east coast, and their venom can quickly affect a victim's heart.

"If you get bitten by a big black hairy spider you need to apply same first aid as you would for snake bite," Dr Nimo said.

"The area bitten becomes quite swollen, like a bee sting, and the patient will start hyper-salivating - a lot of salvia builds up and the tongue swells.

"It feels like an allergic reaction."

Dr Nimo said to apply a firm compression bandage, keep immobilised and travel to hospital as soon as possible if bitten by a funnel web.

The other spider concerning Australians is the white-tail. Some report a bite can cause necrotic lesions, but Dr Nimo said there is no evidence of this.

A white-tail bit will usually cause itchiness, irritation and moderate pain.

If a person is sure they were bitten by a white-tail they should place an ice pack on the area and monitor the bite site.

If stung by a blue bottle, the first aid advice is to first remove the tentacles and then treat the area with ice. Photo: Getty

Marine animals

The most common stinging marine animal beachgoers in Australia come across is the bluebottle.

Many think the bluebottle is a single creature, but are actually made up of a lot of little organisms stuck together.

If stung by a bluebottle, the first aid advice is to first remove the tentacles and then treat the area with ice wrapped in a towel or clothes to avoid burning the skin.

"Generally people on beach with a beer esky can help out with ice," Dr Nimo said. "A hot shower can also help the nature of the venom."

The most dangerous of the venomous marine animals in the country is the box jellyfish, found in northern Australia.

"You can see them, but can’t see the tentacles which can go for metres and the worst part is they wrap around and stay on the skin," Dr Nimo said.

"The venom can have a serious affect on the cardiovascular system and those stung are often pulled out of the water in cardiac arrest."

Dr Nimo said if you suspect someone has been bitten by a box jellyfish, disregard the sting area and immediately start CPR if the person is in distress.

In jellyfish prone areas, there are often bottles of vinegar at the beach that can help remove the tentacles. The tentacles should never be touched with bare skin and rescuers need to wear gloves or use clothes to remove them.

The most dangerous of the venomous marine animals in the country is the box jellyfish. Photo: Getty

There is anti-venom for box jellyfish in Australia and the victim should be taken to hospital.

While the box jellyfish can often be seen floating in the sea, the irukandji can be less evident due to its size.

The irukandji is a tiny jellyfish found in southern Queensland, but have also been reported Western Australian and the Northern Territory.

A sting from a irukandji causes a "funny sensation" and victims decline very quickly.

"They can be very irrational, have head spinning, vomiting and feel as if someone is breaking their back," Dr Nimo said.

"They basically lose their s***."

Those stung by an irukandji should be taken straight to hospital and while there is no anti-venom, a strong dose of magnesium can subside the pain.

When it comes to sea snakes, Dr Nimo said to perform the same first aid as for land snakes and to travel to hospital for anti-venom.

A free smartphone app has been developed to help inform Australians on what to do when bitten or stung by a venomous creature. Photo: Supplied

Last month, a Victorian gardener died from a bee sting and a study has showed they have killed almost as many Australians as snakes and have put almost twice as many victims in hospital.

Melbourne University researchers, who conducted a study into Australia's venomous creatures released this year, said bee stings were dangerous for many due to anaphylaxis.

For most, a bee sting is just a nuisance and can be treated with home remedies. But those who have difficulty breathing, hives, or dizziness should seek medical attention.

To combat the amounts of bites and stings over the Australian summer period and to keep families informed, biotechnology company Seqirus has launched the #NoStingsSummer campaign.

As only 11 per cent of Australians said they refreshed their knowledge on first aid, a free smartphone app has been developed.

The app includes information on which venomous creatures are most relevant to their location with first aid advice.