Bitten by an adder

Västervik, 6th May 2006


In May 2006, I had the wonderful fortune of working once again in Sweden, the country of my dreams.  I worked in a small town called Västervik, on the east coast of Sweden which has a lovely archipelago.  The archipelago is less busy than the one in Stockholm.

I decided to take my tent and camping gear and go out in a kayak on my own to the archipelago and camp out for the evening.  I have done this many times before in Stockholm's archipelago, so this wasn’t anything new.  I rented a kayak from VKV (Vituddens Kanotvarv).  That is a small factory which still manufactures kayaks by hand.  VKV core business is not renting kayaks - it is mainly selling them.  Nevertheless, they were nice enough to rent me good kayaks for two consecutive weekends.

The winter of 2006 was a harsh one in Europe, and this May weekend was the first weekend in southern Sweden with really warm weather (17-20 degrees).  The water, however, was only about 7 degrees which was quite warm considering the ice on some of the lakes had only disappeared the fortnight before.  Nevertheless, I was not planning on falling in. 

It was so warm and beautiful that all the birds, insects and reptiles were all out and about as well.  After a few hours of kayaking, I found a suitable island, and after pitching tent, I started looking around for firewood.  In doing so, I inadvertently stepped too close to an adder (Vipera Berus, or "huggorm" in Swedish), and it bit me in the heel.  I knew that adders were poisonous, but I had not heard of any Swede dying as a result of a Swedish adder bite. I was about 5 hours away from where I started, but only about 1 hour away from the nearest coastline.

Since it was quite a small snake, I decided that I wasn’t going to die.  Furthermore, it was such a beautiful day with sunshine, that I decided to continue enjoying the rest of the weekend without worrying too much about the silly bite.  I didn’t really feel like spending a beautiful sunny weekend in the drab halls of a hospital ward.  And if I was going to die, at least I thoroughly enjoyed my last day on earth and that I was doing what I love.  I learnt later that smaller snakes sometimes have more poison as they are not experienced to know how much poison to dispense with each bite.  However, I also learnt that their bites are seldom fatal to healthy adults (so my hunch about not dying was right).

23 hrs after being bitten 28 hrs after being bitten 67 hrs after being bitten.  Swelling still continued after this.
I did not make it to the hospital till 27 hours after being bitten!  I was lucky that the poison did not go further up into the body.  The damage caused some clotting and swelling which was sensitive for about 6-8 weeks, and I was limping around for almost two months.

Within one hour of being bitten, my whole leg was numb, but luckily, the poison didn’t really travel up into my torso.  Luckily, I didn’t really need to do much walking as most of the time was spent sitting down in a kayak so it didn’t really impede my progress.   So I carried on and enjoyed the next day of sunshine, before leisurely making my way back to town, and visiting the hospital 27 hours after being bitten.  By that time, my thigh and calf was black and blue and getting swollen.  On the right are some pictures showing the progress of the reaction.

The swelling still continued for a while.  I was not particularly bothered by it as the Västervik doctors assured me that it would eventually go down.  They prescribed anti-biotics to prevent infection (Specktramox – amoxicillin).  I visited Västervik's hospital three times (and had to speak Swedish quite often to the admin staff as they were not happy with English).  Interestingly, none of the doctors I saw had ever seen someone who had been bitten by an adder.

The only adverse thing about this adventure is that it has made me really wary about venturing into the forest.  I could deal with the swelling and the limping and I enjoy the fact that I now have the experience of what a snake bite is, but I hate the fact that I now have some fear about walking partly barefoot in the forest.

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