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Poisonous animals
 
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Is the patient envenomed?

 

Is it likely that a clinically relevant injection of venom has taken place?

D  Diagnostics

Inquire re:

  • time of the bite,
  • local pain,
  • nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain.

Assess:

  • state of consciousness.

Measure:

  • blood pressure/pulse,
  • respiratory rate.

Observe/investigate:

  • bite marks,
  • extent and intensity of local swelling,
  • eyes: conjunctivitis, corneal lesions, uveitis (spitting cobras!),
  • enlargement and painfulness of regional lymph nodes,
  • swelling in the facial region, including the larynx/pharynx (angio-oedema),
  • clinical signs of shock,
  • bleeding in the region of the swelling,
  • bleeding from bite marks and other injuries,
  • gingival bleeding,
  • blood-stained sputum, vomit ("coffee ground vomitus"), stools (melaena) or urine,
  • acute abdomen (intra-abdominal bleeding!),
  • focal neurological deficits, meningismus (intracranial bleeding!),
  • cranial nerve deficits, such as ptosis, ophthalmoplegia, dysphagia, dysarthria,
  • paralysis of the skeletal musculature including the respiratory musculature (→ respiratory insufficiency/respiratory failure),
  • flank pain and renal bed sensitive to percussion,
  • severe headache, shock (refractory arterial hypotension), signs of hypoglycaemia and loss of consciousness (acute pituitary/adrenal insufficiency).

Determine:

  • cause of the accident by determination of specific venom antigen and venom concentration in the serum using the ELISA method (if clinically proven and standardised test kits are commercially available), 
  • clotting time (bedside test),
  • blood sugar,
  • urinary output.
C  Comments

The symptoms and degree of envenoming depend not only on the amount of venom injected and numerous other variables, but also on the time that has elapsed since the bite. This variable factor must be taken into account when making the following decisions:

  • exclusion of envenoming (see below),
  • the time interval between clinical examinations (see Therapy phase: Hospital),
  • emergency care (see below).

The fact that a patient has been bitten by a known venomous snake and the presence of bite marks do not automatically allow the conclusion that a clinically relevant injection of venom has taken place.

On the other hand, local signs, e.g. swelling at the site of the bite, following viperid and crotalid bites as well as bites of some Cobra species are an indication that injection of venom has occurred. With Kraits there are no local clinical signs at all.

Krait bites in particular may be completely unnoticed and unrecognised initially, as these snakes often bite humans at night while they are asleep. A Krait bite is thus an important differential diagnosis of bilateral paralysis (of the cranial nerves, extremities, respiratory musculature).

Noticeable bleeding may initially be absent following snakebites that cause haemostatic defects. Nonetheless defibrin(ogen)ation may be present to such a degree that the blood is completely incoagulable (clotting time test).

For this reason the simple clotting time test should always be performed if a viperid, crotalid or colubrid bite is suspected.

To date, acute pituitary insufficiency as a complication of Daboia russelli bites has only been reported in Myanmar and southern India, and acute adrenal insufficiency in Sri Lanka. As a rule these complications do not occur during the acute phase of severe envenoming, but shortly thereafter. A simple rapid diagnostic test for blood sugar and observation of the patient's treatment-resistant hypotensive condition aid in the differential diagnosis (see the Biomedical database entry for Daboia russelli ssp.).

Exclusion of clinically relevant envenoming

D  Diagnostics

Monitoring for signs and symptoms (see above) that would indicate systemic envenoming for at least 24 h (Warrell 1990b) (recommended examinations see Therapy phase: Hospital).

Preparalytic phase:

  • Cobras: <1 h to hours.
  • Kraits: 1–12 h.

Preclinical phase of haemostatic defects:

Viperids, crotalids and colubrids (Rhabdophis sp.): even severe haemostatic defects that can be detected on laboratory tests may not become clinically evident for a long period.

C  Comments

The absence of signs of envenoming in the first hours after the bite does not exclude the possibility that a relevant injection of venom has taken place. There can be a long delay before systemic signs of envenoming develop.