Today we are talking about the bite of the viper, what to do in this emergency, and how to identify that it is indeed this snake and not another. We want to dedicate this in-depth analysis to all mountain and countryside enthusiasts, perhaps mushroom pickers, and mushroom enthusiasts, etc. These are the people who are most likely to encounter this problem. What should you do when you are bitten by a viper? And how to distinguish this snake from others?
The viper is present in our country from north to south, although some species are only found in specific geographic areas. It is a very particular animal, to be protected for the role it plays within the Italian faunistic biodiversity heritage. Therefore, we must learn to know it, understanding its habits, in order to respect it.
However, it is also essential to understand the right behaviors to adopt if you fear its presence in the vicinity. Let’s not forget that we are the ones invading the animals’ territory, so it is up to us to take the necessary precautions. In any case, the bite of a viper, despite popular legends, is lethal in a very limited and rare number of cases. Today we will see what the correct prophylaxis is to be adopted. But first, let’s get to know this snake better.
Viper species that bite in Italy
If you receive a viper bite in Italy, it can be attributed to a limited number of species.
The common name “viper” identifies a genus of venomous snakes belonging to the family Viperidae. There are several species and subspecies belonging to this family.
Below, however, we will only report the most common ones in our territory and their geographic distribution.
The common viper
Let’s start with the common viper, scientific name Vipera aspis.
It is a medium-small snake, usually not exceeding 75 cm. One of the first characteristics that help us distinguish vipers from non-venomous snakes is the diameter of the body, which is larger compared to an equally sized colubrid.
Another salient feature is the length of the tail, which is very short, almost truncated, giving it a stout appearance.
The color of the back in this species is gray, with a series of alternating black bars.
The belly is darker, often with the final part of the ventral side of the tail in yellow-orange color.
Moreover, the head is another distinctive feature of the viper, as it has a pronounced triangular shape. The tip of the snout is directed upwards and has very small and dense scales. The eyes, finally, have an elliptical shape pupil, arranged vertically.
This species is mainly found in central-northern Italy, especially in the west, in the border areas with France, in the Gulf of Genoa, and generally north of Mount Vesuvius.
The Francisciredi asp viper
The Vipera aspis Francisciredi is a much more widespread subspecies of the common viper.
This subspecies of the common viper is found throughout northern Italy, especially in Valtellina, but it is also well distributed in the central regions of the country.
It is characterized by a marked reddish color. However, being not a separate species but a subspecies, the general morphological characteristics are similar to those seen in the common viper.
So in this case too, we have the typical triangular-shaped head, the snout facing upwards and covered by small scales, the elliptical and vertical pupil, and the truncated tail.
The Vipera berus or adder
The Vipera Berus, better known as the adder, is a venomous snake that is quite small. Males measure about 55-60 cm, while females are on average 5-10 cm longer.
They have a stocky appearance, and their color is usually brownish-red, or at most grayish. The back is characterized by a central black Greek fret accompanied by dark lateral dorsal spots. The belly of this species is uniformly black and shiny. Moreover, the head, compared to other viper species, is less triangular. The adder is one of the most common vipers in the central-eastern Lombard Alps, from 1,200 meters up to 2,500.
Its habitat is quite diverse. It can be found at the edge of pastures, bramble patches, in peat bogs, or in forest clearings.
Other Italian viper species
Before understanding how to behave in case of a viper bite and, in general, how to interact in the environments where this reptile lives, let’s briefly see which other viper species are present in our territory.
- The most common species in southern Italy is the Vipera hugyi, which is also found in Sicily. It is characterized by irregular dark spots on the back. It lives in hilly environments and, above all, in the mountains.
- Another species to remember is the Vipera ammodytes or horned viper, which is found in the Eastern Alps. It is a species that is not very aggressive, but among viper bites, its bite is the most dangerous. This species is characterized by light colors and a typical horn at the tip of the head.
- Then we have the Vipera ursinii, which is mainly found in Gran Sasso and is the least venomous and aggressive species.
- Finally, we have the Vipera atra present in northern Italy west of the Ticino line, in Val Staffora, and in the Gulf of Genoa area. It is similar to the common species, except for its black color, which instills much fear.
Viper bite or bite from another snake?
When, during a hike in the mountains, perhaps looking for mushrooms, or in the countryside, looking for wild herbs like mallow, oregano, or dandelion, you encounter a snake, in most cases it is not a venomous snake.
Colubrids, such as the collared watersnake (Natrix natrix) or the green whip snake (Hierophis viridiflavus), are generally the most common and widespread snakes.
Distinguishing specimens belonging to the two families is quite simple. Viperids, in fact, usually do not exceed 75 cm in length, while colubrids easily exceed one meter.
Colubrids are also much slimmer than vipers, and their head almost forms a whole with the rest of the body. The same goes for the tail, which is short and stout in vipers, while gradually tapering in colubrids.
Finally, you can evaluate the speed of movements, which is much higher in colubrids compared to vipers, which move very slowly.
However, it should be emphasized that these morphological characteristics are difficult to observe from a long distance.
Why do vipers bite humans?
In the collective imagination, vipers are considered extremely dangerous animals. This danger, however, is strongly emphasized by the legends of popular tradition.
Another thing to consider is that especially since the Second World War, mountain environments, the preferred habitat of this snake, have become mass tourist destinations. This invasion has in some cases disrupted the natural environment of these reptiles.
In reality, according to the experience of all researchers and true snake enthusiasts, we know that a viper bite, and therefore aggression towards humans, is an extremely rare event.
First of all, it is essential to know that a viper bites humans only when it feels genuinely threatened and its instinct tells it that it has no chance of escape. Therefore, in general, it is important to remain calm and composed, and absolutely avoid sudden or reckless movements, perhaps driven by fear. The right thing to do is simply to move away as cautiously as possible.
Another precaution is to be aware that you are in a natural environment. An ecosystem that belongs to other living species must be respected, and to do so, we must adopt a cautious behavior. We must watch where we walk, where we place our hands when climbing a path, and avoid lifting or moving large rocks. In short, it is necessary not to disturb those who live in that habitat.
Speaking of caution, appropriate clothing during walks is an excellent prevention measure. Above all, avoid wearing open shoes and short pants, which expose our most accessible body parts to the bite of a viper.
Finally, if you spot a viper, do not try to capture or, worse, kill the snake. In this case, it’s no wonder that it becomes aggressive towards us. After what has been said, it may seem like an obvious consideration, but unfortunately, for many people, it is not.
The viper bite
First of all, it is necessary to make a terminological premise: it is more correct to speak of venom poisoning from a viper bite rather than simply a viper bite.
In this snake, the fangs that contain the venom, when they are at rest, are folded against the palate. They are only erected at the moment of the bite aimed at venom injection, and this is a voluntary movement.
Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that the viper may attempt to bite without using its venomous fangs. In this case, we are facing the so-called “dry bite,” and there are no entry holes for the fangs at the site of the bite. It goes without saying that this type of bite is totally harmless. It is estimated that about 20% of bites are “dry.” On the other hand, the venom is essential for the life of vipers, and they tend not to waste it by biting humans. For this reason, sometimes there is evidence of the site of the puncture, but there are no systemic symptoms.
How to recognize a viper bite
The distinctive sign of a viper bite is the presence of 2 small holes spaced 0.5-1 cm apart. They are evident because they are deeper than those left by a dry bite. Sometimes, in addition to the fang holes, the bite may also have other signs, left by the snake’s other teeth.
Viper bite poisoning
The degree of severity of the venom poisoning from a viper bite depends on several factors, first of all, the bitten area. Usually, the lower limbs are the most exposed, followed by the arms. The most dangerous points, however, are the head and neck. In these points, the venom has a more vigorous action and enters the bloodstream much faster.
Other factors that can worsen the extent of poisoning include ambient temperature. Heat, in fact, increases vasodilation and, therefore, facilitates the circulation of the venom.
The behavior of the victim after the bite also has an influence: it is necessary to remain calm. Running, for example, increases blood flow and facilitates the circulation of the venom.
An attenuating factor of the severity of the bite is the age of the viper. Fortunately, young specimens have a much milder venom.
Composition of the venom
The venom of the viper is mainly composed of: water, proteins, nucleotides, ions, and metals. In nature, these substances are used to immobilize, kill, and digest the snake’s small prey. The local and systemic effects resulting from the viper bite are: cardiotoxic, nephrotoxic, neurotoxic, and coagulation disorders.
When bitten by a viper, local clinical effects appear first: after a few minutes, strong pain is felt in the bitten area, followed by severe burning and then a hard edema, erythema, petechiae, ecchymosis, and hemorrhagic blisters that spread beyond the immediate bitten part. In the next 12 hours, blisters, lymphangitis, and adenopathy usually appear.
To the local reactions just described, depending on the dose of venom, the body part bitten, the weight of the subject, are added general symptoms such as: hemodynamic, digestive, coagulation, renal, and neurological disorders.
What to do in case of a viper bite
First of all, as mentioned earlier, you must remain calm. Agitation is the best means of venom dissemination. Then, before swelling begins, it is advisable to remove rings, bracelets, and anything else that could hinder subsequent dressing procedures.
Then you must immediately disinfect the bite wound. If you have it, iodine is perfect, otherwise, any soap and water will do. Avoid using alcohol or other substances that are not proper antiseptics.
If the nearest emergency room is far from the area where the incident occurred, it is advisable to perform emergency bandaging to delay the circulation of the venom. The bandage should be very long, up to 10 meters. The affected limb should be wrapped entirely with the bandage, not just the immediate site of the bite. After bandaging, the limb must be immobilized using a rigid splint. In these conditions, transporting the affected person to the hospital is safer.
Things to absolutely avoid in case of a viper bite
In addition to first aid practices for a viper bite, there are other common-sense practices that should be avoided in this situation.
Firstly, do not apply tourniquets. Tourniquets slow down or block venous outflow, creating dangerous venous stasis. Additionally, they do not block lymphatic flow, which is responsible for spreading the venom throughout the body.
Avoid sucking the venom from the wound with your mouth, as often portrayed in movies. Each person has small oral lesions that could allow the venom to enter the bloodstream. In short, it’s better to deal with one poisoned person than two!
Do not administer any kind of alcohol, even for pain relief. It will only worsen the situation by increasing the absorption of the venom. Alcohol is a known vasodilator.
Hospital treatment, antidote or no antidote?
The person bitten by a viper should be transported to the emergency room as soon as possible. In the hospital, the medical staff will evaluate the situation. They will assess the local and systemic symptoms, the degree of poisoning, and then decide whether to administer the antidote or not.
Administering the antivenom serum is not always necessary or unavoidable.
In the past, when people went to the mountains, it was common to carry this serum as a precautionary measure. However, since 2003, the antivenom serum has been classified as a hospital drug and can only be administered in hospitals.
This serum is a drug that is not produced in our country. It mostly comes from the Balkans and is obtained from venom-immunized horses. Its use outside of a hospital setting exposes the person to a high risk of severe anaphylactic reactions. Therefore, it is essential for doctors to assess the need for administration, weighing the benefits and risks for the patient. According to statistics, only 15-20% of patients bitten by a viper receive the serum.
Administration is indicated only in severe cases when the patient exhibits symptoms such as:
- Severe alterations in blood coagulation parameters;
- Severe hypotension or shock;
- Significant and prolonged gastrointestinal symptoms;
- Cardiac arrhythmias, shortness of breath;
- Significant edema of the affected limb.
- MDPI-1: “Comparative Analysis of Alpha-1 Orthosteric-Site Binding by a Clade of Central American Pit Vipers (Genera Atropoides, Cerrophidion, Metlapilcoatlus, and Porthidium)” – This research focuses on the distribution and relative potency of post-synaptic neurotoxic activity within Crotalinae venoms, particularly comparing it with Elapidae snake venoms.
- MDPI-2: “Insight into the Toxicological and Pathophysiological Effects of Moroccan Vipers’ Venom: Assessing the Efficacy of Commercial Antivenom for Neutralization” – The study highlights Morocco’s rich biodiversity, especially in its ophidian fauna. It emphasizes the Viperidae family, which is responsible for a significant percentage of severe envenomation cases in the region.
- MDPI-3: “Fangs in the Ghats: Preclinical Insights into the Medical Importance of Pit Vipers from the Western Ghats” – This article sheds light on the socioeconomic impact of snakebites in India, primarily attributed to a subset of snake species known as the ‘big four’. The research also touches upon the envenoming caused by other clinically important yet neglected snakes.