How to avoid snakes in Switzerland
I don’t mind telling you that I’m scared of snakes. And I know that I’m not the only one!
Snakes are found throughout Switzerland but fortunately there are only two venomous species here: the asp viper and the common European viper (or adder).
By Dr. Michelle Wright, MBChB MRCGP, Medical Director of HealthFirst
The good news is that most people won’t find these poisonous snakes in their back garden - they tend to live on the sunny slopes of the Jura and the Swiss Alps and not on the plateau. Snakes are cold-blooded creatures: their body temperature depends on that of the environment around them. They are most active mid-February to end-October when they can be found basking in the sun on rocks. However during heat waves, droughts, heavy rain or cold weather, they tend to hide away in piles of wood, under stones or in dry walls.
While there has only been one fatality in Switzerland related to a snake bite since 1960, and only 103 snake bites recorded between 1983 and 1995, (and only 14 people developed complications) - anyone who works outside or who enjoys walking in the Swiss countryside could encounter a venomous snake.
The majority of snake bites in this country only lead to minor symptoms but 24-hour surveillance in hospital and supportive treatment will be required. Anti-venom treatment is rarely necessary and the biggest danger is a serious allergic reaction - but this is not common.
What is the First Aid for a snake bite in Switzerland?
- Stay calm. Bites can be painful but it usually takes several hours for any venom to have its effects, allowing time for medical care to be sought. In the case of an arm bite; remove any watch, rings or bracelets because swelling is likely to occur.
- Disinfect the wound with a disinfectant spray, lotion, cream etc.
- Immobilise the affected limb to slow down the spread of venom around the body. For example, put an arm into a sling or use a walking pole or tree branch as a splint for a leg. Place some padding between the leg and splint first to avoid pressure points and skin damage.
- Get rapid medical attention for the injured person. They should avoid making any unnecessary movement or effort. Depending on the location you made need to call the emergency services.
If the person loses consciousness, check that they are still breathing normally. If they are, put them into the Recovery Position - the safe position for an unconscious person with them lying on their side. Do you know how to do this? If not, go on a First Aid course to learn why and to practice how.
If a person has a known allergy to snake venom, help them to inject their emergency medicine (for example an EpiPen®) as soon as possible.
Despite what you may have seen or heard elsewhere, the following are not recommended in Switzerland:
- The use of compressive bandages or tourniquets.
- Incising the bite, using a suction device or applying ice.
- Drinking alcohol after having been bitten.
- Injecting anti-venom – this should only be administered by a doctor.
Did you know? Snakes don’t have ears, so they are deaf. They are also naturally scared of us: a forceful movement from you can be enough to ward them off but if they’re cornered or disturbed, they will defend themselves by hissing and biting.
How to avoid contact with snakes
- Don’t walk in bare feet on ground obscured by undergrowth.
- Before you take a hiking break, check for the presence of snakes – especially if perching on a rock in the sun!
- Mushroom or berry hunting in the woods? Use a stick to hit the scrub to scare off any snakes.
- Don’t put your hand out of view into a pile of wood, stones or a dry stone wall.
- If you are lifting up a stone or plank of wood, remember that a snake could be hidden underneath.
- Don’t camp in the open air in places where snakes are known to be present.
- Don’t ever try to catch a snake.
- If you see a snake and it doesn’t appear to be moving, pass around it calmly, keeping a distance of at least two metres.
HEALTH MATTERS WITH DR. MICHELLE WRIGHT
Listen to more Health Matters segments in the archives.
Dr Michelle Wright is a British-trained General Practitioner and one of the Medical Directors of HealthFirst, delivering First Aid Training and Health Education in English throughout Switzerland.
Michelle also works as a doctor in the Staff Medical Service of the International Labour Organisation in Geneva and is a medical writer and journalist.