“In Australia, everything is out to kill you.” Hearing this may come with a hint of pride and more than a hint of truth too.
Certainly from a First Aid perspective, outdoor adventuring in Australia has serious safety concerns. Australia can be a dangerous place.
Take for example, a 5-hour period in 2016 that 4 Victorians failed to survive. The fatal hand was dealt by a thunderstorm — not by lightning strikes, but by allergic reactions the storm triggered. The resulting severe asthma attacks prompted almost 2000 ambulance calls.
With this article, we’re not trying to rain on your parade. It’s just a reality check to help ensure that your adventures in the Great Outdoors don’t go pear-shaped in a hurry.
Being mindful is key. You need to be careful where you sit when you gather around the campfire. And when it’s finally time to turn in and jump into your sleeping bag, make sure you do so with caution.
If you fancy a morning surf, check for rips. And fins. Don’t forget the sun screen and the bug spray. Stay hydrated.
First Aid? Knowing it goes without saying. Possibly more than anyone, Australians appreciate the value of First Aid know-how in remote areas.
A study in 2017 looked into the coronial data between 2000 and 2013, when almost 42,000 Australians found themselves in hospital after being bitten or and stung. Two died.
Spiders (30%) and snakes (15%) accounted for their share of mayhem, however, 31% of hospital admissions involved stings from bees, wasps, and hornets. It turns out that the stings from bees and wasps are as deadly as bites from snakes.
Between 2000 and 2013, snakes killed 27 Australians, with bees and wasps accounting for an equal number. So, despite their ominous and well-deserved reputation, Australian spiders weren’t to blame for a single fatality during that same period. That said, they did send close to 12,000 people to hospital from 2000 to 2013.
A bite from a Redback spider caused the last documented death from a spider in Australia, in 1999.
Crocodiles killed 19 people between 2000 and 2013, and sharks took 26. First past the post in terms of animal-related causes of death, however, was a less likely suspect: the horse. In the study period, 74 Australians were thrown or trampled to death by horses.
Man’s best friend, the dog, caused 23 fatalities.
During the same study period, nearly 5,000 people drowned. Let that sink in (pardon the pun) — Sharks: 26; Drowning: 5,000.
Consider if you will, going for a hike… a proverbial walk in the woods. But before setting off, try this quick quiz:
The symptoms are similar enough. Both exhibit mild to extreme elevations in body temperature.
Such states are normally brought under control by perspiration. Normally…
Sweating allows you to cool down through evaporation. But, if you’re dehydrated — too dehydrated to sweat — your body temperature has nowhere to go but up.
Similarly cooling down with the help of evaporation is not possible in extremes of high humidity.
In such cases, when you’re not able to cool down, you could well be heading for a heat-induced illness.
Heat Exhaustion is when body temperatures hover between 37° and 40° Celsius.
A person with Heat Exhaustion might be sweating heavily. If not, their skin would be cold, pale, and clammy. Their pupils would appear dilated.
• Fatigue caused by low blood pressure and decreased blood volume, following loss of body fluids and salts from prolonged exposure to high heat
• Dizziness, Headache, Nausea,
• Possibly Vomiting & Collapse
The casualty should lie down, clothing loosened, excess clothing removed. Cool the person by using a damp cloth to moisten their skin and fanning them. Assuming the person is fully conscious, give them cool water to drink.
Heat Exhaustion not correctly addressed could quickly develop into the more serious of the 2 heat-related illnesses — Heat Stroke.
Heat Stroke is when body temperatures escalate to more than 40° C.
The skin of a Heat Stroke sufferer will be dry. Their breathing will be rapid and shallow. Their pupils will appear concentrated.
• Severe Thirst
• Vertigo, Confusion
• Headache, Nausea or Vomiting
• Muscle cramps
Heat Stroke can be fatal.
1. Call 000 for an Ambulance
2. Follow DRSABCD
3. Move the casualty to a cooler environment if possible
4. Moisten the skin with a wet cloth and fan repeatedly
5. Apply wrapped ice packs to the neck, groin, armpits
The acronym DRSABCD stands for:
You want danger out of the equation — anything that threatens you, the victim, or bystanders with danger. Sharp objects, live wires, overflowing liquids. No one should be in the path of oncoming hazards. First Aid would quickly become unmanageable if more victims were to be added, yourself included.
Seek a response from the victim to find out if they are conscious or not. Ask: “Can you hear me? Open your eyes. What’s your name?” Ask them to squeeze your hand.
You or someone else in the vicinity needs to call for help in the form of emergency services, an ambulance, or a paramedic.
Check the victim’s airways are clear, that their breathing is not restricted. You may need to carefully roll the person onto their side, with their spine, neck and head aligned. Clear their mouth of any obstructions.
Check the person is breathing. Look for chest movement, place your hand on their lower chest area to feel any movement, listen closely to their nose and mouth for breathing. If they are breathing, continue to monitor their respirations until paramedics arrive.
CPR should be performed when a victim is unconscious and not breathing. With the victim on their back, place the heel of your hand in the centre of their chest, your other hand on top of it. Press firmly down — to a third the depth of their chest. Repeat 30 times. Then administer 2 breaths after pinching their nose and placing your mouth over theirs. Stick to the compressions if you’re uncomfortable with mouth-to-mouth. The breaths are optional. Continue with CPR until the victim responds or paramedics arrive to take over.
A defibrillator or AED (automated external defibrillator) would be needed if the victim is still unconscious and not breathing. If an AED cannot be found nearby, the paramedics will have one when they arrive.
Severe dehydration can have serious consequences for children under 2, elderly people, those with kidney, heart or circulation problems, and Diabetics. In such cases, it’s best the casualty is taken to hospital immediately.
Prevention is the best cure for Heat-Induced Illness…
• Don’t leave the kids (or your pets) in the car
• Drink plenty of water, rather than tea, coffee or alcoholic beverages
• Wear lightweight, loose-fitting clothing made from fabric that “breathes” and allows sweat to evaporate
• Protect yourself outside — ‘Slip, Slop. Slap. Seek, Slide’.
• Where possible, do outdoor chores before 10am and after 4pm. Otherwise limit the time you spend doing those chores
• Keep your energy levels up, eating nutritious foods, including plenty of fruit and vegetables
Now, let’s get back to the topic we started with — Hiking.
It sounds perfectly straightforward. Pack your gear. Drive to your national park of choice. Follow the trail.
But even a hike planned by seasoned outdoorsy types is not without its risks. There are often scrapes and always insects. There’s sunburn. There are snakes and spiders. And too often, there’s anaphylactic shock.
Hiking is also physically demanding. Your body needs to be prepared for shock, strain, and fatigue on the trail.
If you’re underdone, anything from severe cramps to a heart attack could result. In the latter case, First Aid had better be handy. Cardiac arrest is a leading cause of death in the Great Outdoors.
If you know you’re at risk, you’d be wise to seek approval from your doctor before you go on a hike.
It’s not just your body that needs to be prepared. Being prepared also includes painkillers. In fact your emergency First Aid kit should also include bandages, ointments, antihistamines, and maintenance medication.
If one of your buddies is asthmatic or is likely to suffer anaphylactic shock from bee stings or other, it’s advisable to be prepared to administer treatment for asthma or anaphylaxis.
Hikers also need a good stock of common sense. For instance, they should understand why hiking is not a great decision when the weather is looking less than favourable.
Storms can turn almost any hiking trail into an accident waiting to happen. On the plus side, postponing your hike because of the weather forecast, allows for other, less risky plans. Save your hike for gentler weather.
Weather permitting, you and your fellow hikers are bound by a tacit agreement to keep yourselves safe, to respect the environment and its inhabitants, and to leave behind a trail that is none the worse for you having crossed it.
With GPS technology, navigating a hike is a doddle. And who doesn’t have a mobile device these days? But who doesn’t also run out of battery, lose signal, or have device malfunctions?
Take a physical map and a compass.
Your clothing needs to be unrestrictive but sturdy. You need it to protect you from the weather, the bugs, and the scrapes. A wide-brimmed hat will offer shade for your neck and face. Take a jacket that is capable of keeping you warm and dry, and comfy, durable footwear with good grip.
Be smart with the food and water you take. You want to be hydrated and energised throughout the hike, not exhausted, famished and fainting on the trail.
Think dried fruits, nuts, power bars, granola, dried meat, sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs. Make sure your water canteen is filled to the brim.
You should never hike alone, no matter how familiar and how confident you are with a trail.
When you’re on the trail with your party, don’t strike out ahead. Stay in their line of vision.
It’s a matter of respect. Should anything happen to you, the burden of responsibility falls on first responders.
But before we all start singing Have a Nice Hike!, consider also that the Great Outdoors is crawling with life — insects, spiders, ticks, and snakes.
Paralysis ticks normally go about their business inflicting themselves on unsuspecting animals — native Australian species mainly. But livestock, domestic pets, and humans that cross their path are also suckers for these suckers.
Tick prevention is a big deal in Australia with an estimated 20,000 domestic animals paralysed every year.
Where it gets deadly serious for we humans is that many of us experience allergic reactions from ticks. Reactions range from mild itching and localised swelling to life-threatening anaphylaxis.
Paralysis ticks like it moist and humid. Peak season for them is spring and summer — warm with a chance of rain.
They’ll find you in wooded and grassy areas, especially in temperature rainforests. They’ll find you when you’re camping and bush walking.
If you hope to avoid the ticks, keep to the centre of the trail and away from dense vegetation. And make it difficult for them to get to your skin by tucking your shirt into your pants and your pants into your socks.
You’ll need insect repellent with at least 20% DEET. Apply it before entering tick infested areas. It will protect you for several hours.
Later in the day, check yourself for ticks. Sticking with the theme of moist and humid, ticks gravitate to the underarms, between legs, under hair, in and around ears, in belly buttons, behind knees, and around waists.
Ticks can be inadvertently carried in your clothing. A clothes dryer on high heat will effectively kill them.
If you try to pull a tick out with fingers or tweezers, even fine-tipped tweezers, you can’t be sure you’ll remove it in its entirety. And you certainly don’t want to be squeezing the tick while doing so. This can easily result in you being injected and infected.
Aside from exposing you to transmissible diseases, you could have a severe allergic reaction and you could also become sensitised to ticks and even meat. More on allergic reactions and anaphylaxis shortly…
You might find this ABC radio interview intersting.
The absolute best way to remove a paralysis tick? Don’t squeeze it… freeze it.
Sprays that contain ether, such as Wart-Off Freeze or Elastoplast Cold Spray, will do the job.
These products may not be designed for killing ticks, but a frozen tick is a dead tick. It’s an immediate kill, with no second chances for the tick to unload more of its toxic saliva.
Leave the tick in place — and we mean leave it. Any pressure on the tick and you run the risk of toxins being released.
The tick will drop off within 24 hours. Once it’s out, clean the bite area with antiseptic or soap and water.
ASCIA (Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology & Allergy) recommends this freezing method. The Department of Health, while not so quick to endorse it, is awaiting further research.
In the meantime, here’s the Department’s advice for removing a tick (for people not susceptible to allergic reactions): “When removing a tick with fine tipped forceps (not household tweezers unless fine tipped forceps are not available), grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible. Pull upwards with steady pressure and avoid jerking or twisting the tick.”
With this method of tick extraction, again thoroughly clean the bite area (and your hands), using alcohol, antiseptic, iodine scrub, or soap and water.
It’s normal for the bite area to be itchy for a while… for as much as a few weeks afterwards. If you were unable to remove the tick completely, or if you experience persistent symptoms, a trip to the doctor is definitely in order.
We have some 2900 species of spiders in Australia… a reasonable excuse for arachnophobia.
Among the more frightening of them is the Huntsman. They don’t often bite and their venom isn’t considered dangerous to humans. But they sure do scare the heck out of people. It’s all the ensuing flight response accidents that are the worry.
The only spiders responsible for fatalities, in fact, are Funnel-webs and Redbacks. But not any more. Records show we’ve had no deaths from spider bites in Australia since 1981. Since antivenoms were introduced for both these species, deaths have been curtailed.
Six others species are also considered dangerous but rarely cause serious harm:
Humans are not a food staple for spiders. Nor are we thrill kills for them. It’s because they are being disturbed — attacked themselves — that spiders become understandably aggressive.
A man who spends his time researching these 8-legged creatures is Dr. Aaron Harmer. As Macquarie University’s arachnid researcher, Dr Harmer admits that many spiders can “give you a nip” and he says, reassuringly, “in most cases it is less troublesome than a bee sting.”
That’s all well and good. On behalf of hundreds of attending medical officers, we say you still need to know First Aid.
Knowing what to do in the event of a spider bite is more than simply good advice. The dangers, especially when medical help is not so readily available, cannot be ignored.
Toxicity of the venom aside, spider bites can also trigger severe allergic reactions and anaphylactic shock, which can also be fatal. Anaphylaxis causes swelling and obstruction of a person’s airways, depriving the body of life-giving oxygen.
Symptoms of Anaphylaxis include:
Symptoms of spider bites include pain and swelling where the bite was inflicted, profuse sweating, abdominal or generalised pain, involuntary muscle contractions, headache, chills or fever, weakness, and unconsciousness.
If the culprit was a Funnel-web, you need to move immediately to the Pressure Immobilisation Technique.
The purpose of this technique is to arrest the venom before it is carried further throughout the body by the victim’s lymphatic system. It will “buy time” until proper medical care becomes available. Call Emergency on 000 or 112.
Tightly bandage over the bitten area — as tightly as you would for a sprained ankle. Extend the bandage the full length of the limb and immobilise it. No tourniquets. And do not cut, suck, or wash the bite site.
The victim should be kept at rest, reassured, and under observation. Follow the basic life support guidelines (DRSABCD).
While the pressure immobilisation technique is vital for Funnel Web bites, it is not recommended for Redbacks and other spider bites. Nor is it recommended for stings from scorpions, centipedes or beetles.
The pressure immobilisation technique is effective also for snake bites. More on snake bites, shortly.
Without doubt, the Sydney Funnel-web is one of the world’s most venomous spiders. Its fangs, or chelicerae, are big enough to deliver a deep injection of atracotoxin. The venom is extremely dangerous to primates, including humans.
You don’t need to live in Sydney to share your space with the Sydney Funnel-web. They can be found in many locations in New South Wales, mostly in forests but also in urban areas in backyards and around swimming pools. And they can be quite aggressive when threatened.
In NSW or South-East Queensland, any bite from a large (greater than 2 cm) dark-coloured spider, should be considered a possible bite from a Funnel-web spider and immediately treated as an emergency.
In the case of a Redback spider bite, the pressure immobilisation technique is not required. Instead, apply an ice-pack or a cold compress to lessen the severity of the pain and keep the victim under constant observation.
If the casualty is a young child, if collapse occurs, or pain is severe, follow the basic life support flow chart. Call 000/112 or transport the victim to medical care as soon as possible.
Redbacks are found in many habitats throughout Australia, including urban areas. They are nocturnal and like dry, sheltered places such as garden sheds, mailboxes, and under toilet seats.
Only the female Redback spider is dangerous.
White-tailed spiders are accorded legendary infamy in Australia. Stories abound, complete with gory details about flesh rotting and so on.
Recent studies show that white-tailed spider venom is not especially dangerous to humans. The most likely outcome is mild local pain. The usual caveats apply, however, when it comes to allergic reactions and the possibility of anaphylactic shock.
White-tailed spiders can be found in natural and urban areas all around Australia, especially coastal areas. With a whitish tip at end of its abdomen, this species is typically dark red to grey in colour, with orange-brown banded legs. They are 1.8cm – 2cm in length with a leg-span up to 2.8cm.
White-tailed spiders wander about at night, hunting other spiders.
Garden Orb Weaver spiders are common throughout Australia. They are highly aggressive and the spider species most likely to bite. Active at night, they take shelter during the day, hiding under leaves or in clothes on washing lines.
A student completing her First Aid course with Australia Wide First Aid offers the following tale which shows the unpredictable nature of allergic reactions to bites.
“A couple nights ago, my partner and I were in bed, and he shot up and said he’d seen a spider. Safe to say we didn’t sleep in our own bed for nights.
“He then developed bronchitis within what appears to be 28 – 36 hours. He didn’t know what type of spider it was, and he didn’t alert the GP when he saw her.
“Today, however, when I was getting ready for work, I found the 8-legged rascal in my clothes! It was the brown big-butted garden orb weaver spider.
“The symptoms were nausea and dizziness, which he’s had since the bite he found the morning after, but the doctor — I think — has misdiagnosed the severity because of the unknown spider bite, and she instead prescribed heavy duty antibiotics, puffers, and even steroids to my partner.
“Two days after the spider bit my partner, the spider bite now looks like a purple smudge, a bit like a bruise. The morning after the spider bite occurred, it looked like a purple nipple due to swelling and because my partner scratched it.”
Another species with a bad rap is the Australian tarantula. They can be found in Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia, Western Australia, and as far south as Victoria.
Australian tarantulas usually prey on insects, lizards and frogs, occasionally on bird hatchlings. Some members of the species are also known as whistling or barking spiders because of their ability to make sounds by rubbing their front legs against their jaws.
Their large fangs can inflict a painful bite but the venom is non-fatal to humans. Effects from the bite, such as vomiting and fever are rare.
It’s worth noting that the bite of an Australian tarantula can be fatal to dogs.
Trap-door spiders are also feared. They are found throughout Australia, in natural and urban environments, and are certainly aggressive when threatened.
Not unlike a Funnel-web spider bite, the bite from a Trap-door spider is treated with similar caution. The venom can cause nausea, lethargy, and malaise. More generally, the only symptom is localised pain.
The Mouse spider is found all around Australia, in burrows, near rivers and waterways, and occasionally in suburban areas. Active during the day, these spiders are typically lethargic and rarely aggressive.
Only one case of severe envenomation from a Mouse spider has been reported in Australia. With a bite that is similar, the Funnel-web anti-venom has been found to be effective on Mouse spider bites.
If identifying spiders appeals to you, try this in-depth article on Spider Bites in Australia.
If the victim is bitten on a limb, apply a broad pressure bandage over the bite site as soon as possible. Elasticated bandages (10-15cm wide) will be a little easier to work with than crepe bandages. If neither are available, use clothing or other material.
This type of bandage needs to be tight — tight enough that sliding a finger between the bandage and skin should meet with some resistance, but not so tight as to choke off blood supply completely.
Apply additional pressure bandage, starting at the fingers or toes of the affected limb. This additional bandage can be applied over existing clothing and it should extend the length of the limb, covering as much of it as possible. This will further restrict lymphatic flow and help immobilise the limb.
The aim is to make it difficult for the venom to be spread throughout the body via the lymphatic system.
Call for medical help. If help is going to be a long time coming, apply local pressure at the bite site to block vessels that flow toward the body.
Australia has around 100 venomous snakes, 12 of them with bites that can kill.
Snake bite is more than a little challenging because it’s often difficult to distinguish the snake species and determine whether the bite is going to be life threatening.
Symptoms of venomous snake bite include:
Even the bite of a snake deemed harmless can cause infection or severe allergic reaction, including anaphylaxis. This is why First Aiders treat all snake bites as potentially life-threatening. It’s also why it’s best, when someone is bitten by a snake, to call emergency.
In Australia, venomous snakes continue to kill a couple of people every year, while many others recover. Access to anti-venom keeps fatalities to a minimum.
Our most dangerous snakes include:
After a snake bite, the venom present on the victim’s skin or clothes will be very useful for venom detection kits which are used to determine the type of snake involved.
This is why it’s not a good idea to wash the wound or discard any of the victim’s clothes worn at the time of the snake bite.
Snake bites can be ‘dry’ or ‘venomous’. It’s important to know the difference. Both types have corresponding symptoms and a non-venomous bite could still cause a life-threatening reaction if treated incorrectly.
This is where the snake strikes the victim without releasing venom. The skin may still be punctured and there’s often pain, swelling and redness at the point of attack. But it may not be clear if there’s venom present.
This type of snake bite would not require anti-venom. However, even with a dry bite, call 000. You would treat it as a medical emergency because of the potential for complications, such as an infection or anaphylaxis.
Aptly named, this obviously involves poison being released in the snake strike. The venom can numb, stun, even kill the target.
Venomous Snake Bite Symptoms:
All snake bites constitute a medical emergency and First Aid treatment is vital. Always call 000 for an ambulance and be ready to provide CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) if needed.
Snake bites to limbs should be treated with pressure immobilisation bandaging. For areas where a pressure bandage cannot be applied, you would need to maintain firm local pressure to help stop the spread of venom.
It’s a good idea to mark the bite site on the bandage with a pen or felt-tip marker. As before with pressure immobilisation bandaging, apply tightly and wrap the entire limb, starting at the extremities and continuing for the length of the limb.
Calm the victim. Movement would stimulate circulation. So make sure they remain still.
There’s a danger the snake bite victim could experience a severe allergic reaction and go into anaphylactic shock. This can be fatal.
Call emergency on 000 if you’re seeing any of the symptoms of anaphylaxis:
People with an existing history of anaphylaxis may have an action plan. This would generally include administering epinephrine with an auto injector.
Take action. If the symptoms suggest anaphylaxis, you shouldn’t hesitate to use the auto-injector immediately before following the other steps of the Anaphylaxis Action Plan.
Believe it or not, a great many snake bites in Australia involve people who have been trying to either capture or kill the snake.
A snake will generally leave you alone and go on its way if you leave it alone and back away. Clearly you are not on its diet plan. It would justifiably go on the attack as an act of instinctive self defence.
On the trail, be careful traipsing through long grass. Be aware that the underside of fallen timber is a no-go zone, often a vipers’ nest and a place best left alone.
Aside from that, it’s a good idea to take caution with your camping equipment, particularly when returning to base after leaving it unattended for some time. Tents, sleeping bags, clothing and boots need to be checked.
The Australia Bush is beautiful and wild. It needs to be treated with respect.
If you plan to enjoy it fully, you simply need to go with your wits about you.
This article has gone into detail about some of the most serious concerns, major catastrophes aside. And it shows that, with a little preparation, a decent First Aid kit and some fair dinkum training in First Aid, you can set off with the bush skills to more confidently see the Great Outdoors and live to talk about it.
There’s no time like right now if you want to do something about First Aid training for yourself or your fellow adventurers. Head on over to our FAQ page now to learn more about our streamlined First Aid courses.