Health

Published: Sunday February 10, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Friday May 24, 2013 MYT 4:11:00 PM

Slithery wonders

As the year of the snake slithers into sight, Fit4Life takes a look at all things snake-related in health, proven or otherwise.

SNAKES have a pretty nasty reputation. We already know they are not the kind of creatures you want to cuddle up in bed with. In fact, they give most people the creeps, with their slimy, yucky, scaly and alien-like bodies.

However, snakes are one of the most maligned creatures around. Whether in playing the resident seducer in the Garden of Eden or turning innocent folk into stone through Medusa’sstare, these slithery creatures have been seen as a symbol of mischief and evil across many cultures and religions.

This abominable reputation seeps into the real-life experiences of victims of venomous attacks. Snakes can often deliver painful and potentially fatal bites.

But not everyone is afraid of the big, bad snake. Ancient Chinese wisdom says that having a snake in the house is a good omen, because it means that your family will never starve.

In certain parts of Asia, especially China and South-East Asia, these reptiles are actually coveted for their various health and medicinal properties.

The snake also makes quite an interesting character in the Chinese zodiac. In Chinese culture, people born under this sign are said to be charming, popular, and absolutely irresistible, so we’re guessing that males born under this sign are probably the suave James-Bond types.

Some of the celebrities born in the year of the snake include Bob Dylan, Greta Garbo, Art Garfunkel, Audrey Hepburn, Dean Martin, Dorothy Parker, Paul Simon, Oprah Winfrey, Virginia Woolf, Ben Stiller, Charlie Sheen, Martha Stewart, Pierce Brosnan (told you there was a Bond in there, somewhere), Robert Downey Jr and Tim Allen.

Apparently, these folks also enjoy being at the centre of attention and often steal the spotlight.

As the year of the snake slithers into sight this Chinese New Year, Fit4Life takes a step into the world of all things snake-related in health (proven or otherwise).

Snakebites

In just minutes, the venom of rattlesnakes, cobras, vipers and other poisonous snakes can cause swelling and severe burning pain at the bite site. This local reaction may be followed by a dangerous drop in blood pressure or paralysis, which will cause the victim to collapse and experience extensive bleeding everywhere in their body.

Major bruises can spread from the bite, with blood escaping from the nose and mouth. Without treatment, the victim may die.

Malaysia has its fair share of these slithery predators. At the coastal waters of the region, there are at least 18 different species of venomous front-fanged land snakes and over 22 different species of sea snakes.

The cobra is the most common type of venomous snake found in South-East Asia, and throughout Malaysia in particular.

However, some studies claim that up to two-thirds of all snakebites in Malaysia are due to Malayan pit vipers, and about 75% of these cases occur in the northern states of Perlis, Kedah and Penang in Peninsular Malaysia.

Of all the snakes found in this part of the world, the sea snakes are said to be the deadliest and most venomous. The venom of these sea snakes is about four to eight times as toxic as cobra venom. Because most sea snakes live along shallow coastal water, fishermen are at the highest risk of being bitten by them.

Incidences of snakebites in Malaysia are not as uncommon as you think. A total of 19,355 admissions to government health facilities from venomous animal bites or stings were reported from the year 1999 to 2001, according to poisoning data compiled from the Information and Documentation System of the Health Ministry.

Snakebites commonly affect those between the ages of 10 and 19, and are twice as common in males than in females.

In general, there are three types of snake antivenin available in local hospitals. They are: polyvalent antivenin, mainly intended for cobra bites; the Malayan pit viper antivenin; and the sea snake antivenin. Such cases are typically handled by the emergency department in hospitals.

Snakes in medicine

Knowing the perils that loom when dealing with snakes, you would think that medical researchers (or humans in general) would want to stay as far away as they can from these poisonous terrors, or the deadly venom they secrete in their saliva and eject out of their fangs.

However, poisonous snakes are actually prized research subjects for scientists in search of better treatments for disorders such as high blood pressure, heart diseases, stroke, cancers, and auto-immune and neurological disorders.

The reason behind this is because some investigators think that the very proteins that make snake venom deadly, may, in the right dosages or right changes, be a source of healing for humankind.

Since ancient times, snakes have been used in traditional treatments to treat a myriad of health problems, including chronic skin diseases, arthritis, convulsions, paralysis and erectile dysfunction.

Although none of these treatments have actually been backed up by any scientific or medical evidence, some of them remain popular alternative health options to this day.

Among the earliest recorded use of snakes in Chinese medicine was the application of sloughed snake skin in China circa 100 AD. Because snakes shed their skin, it was thought that their skin has regenerative properties.

As a result, sloughed snake skin (usually roasted) has been used orally and topically in the treatment of skin problems like acne, carbuncles, itching skin and psoriasis.

The snake’s incredible agility and flexibility have also led to the belief that they might be helpful in the treatment of joint stiffness and arthritis.

The speed with which some snakes move also indicate that as medicines, their “substance” can move quickly around the body. These snakes are also sometimes soaked in alcohol to make an extract for stiff joints.

Elsewhere, snake bile has long been valued as a tonic, and is used to make special health drinks. In some specialty restaurants in southern China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, the bile of the snake is eaten with rice wine and consumed before a meal as an appetite stimulant.

Snake meat and blood have also been thought to be powerful aphrodisiacs that can help enhance one’s performance in the bedroom. And to think that some of us are actually happy to make-do with chocolate, cologne and some Barry White...

The ‘snake disease’

Shingles, also known as sang seh (translated as “snake disease”) to the Chinese, is a painful, blistering skin rash due to the varicella-zoster virus – the same virus that causes chickenpox in children and adults.

After you get chickenpox, the virus remains inactive (becomes dormant) in certain nerves in the body. Generally, one gets life-long immunity after recovering from chickenpox.

However, if a person is only partially immune, a second infection can occur. Shingles occurs after the virus becomes active again in these nerves years later. While the reason the virus suddenly becomes active again is not clear, often, only one attack is likely to occur.

Shingles may develop at any age, but you are more likely to develop the condition if you are older than 60; had chickenpox before the age of one; or your immune system has been weakened by medication or disease.

Shingles begins as a hypersensitive area of the skin, with irritation and itching or burning, usually in a coil around the midriff area or under the breasts, hence earning its name, the snake disease. It usually, but not always, affects only one side of the body.

Other areas usually affected by shingles include the neck, shoulder, upper back, and in some cases, even the face or eyes. A bout of sensitivity is typically followed by an outbreak of small, very painful blisters, usually in a cluster around the area in question.

The pain can range from being moderate to extremely severe depending on the state of the individual’s immune system. Unfortunately, it is usually the elderly and those with a weakened immune system who will suffer the most pain from the disease. Some can’t even wear clothing or allow the affected area to be touched.

There is no cure for shingles, and if left untreated, the duration of the disease can go on for three to five weeks. Treatment such as antiviral medicines and topical creams may shorten the length of illness and prevent complications, as well as help relieve pain.

In some cases, post-herpetic neuralgia, a chronic condition that causes the patient to experience mild to severe pain even after the blisters have disappeared, can develop after a shingles attack. Unfortunately, this can go on for years afterwards, and the longer the condition goes untreated, the poorer the prognosis.

Lessons we can learn from the snake

Snakes have no legs. I don’t mean to be Captain Obvious here, but here’s an important lesson we can all learn from the snake – don’t be defined by your limitations.

Just look at the snake. Despite not having legs (or arms for that matter), these creatures somehow find a way to negotiate a wide variety of habitats, from desert dunes to trees to the ocean.

From the giant anaconda of the Amazon, to the poisonous rattlesnakes of the Americas, the cobras of Asia and Africa, as well as the tiger snakes in Australia, snakes have managed to roam almost the entire planet.

Not having legs hasn’t stopped them from being among the deadliest predators in the wild either. These swift-striking, venom-spitting reptiles are predators that can outwit and overcome their prey in a matter of seconds.

Whether they are venomous or constrictors, they make the best of their abilities to overcome whatever obstacles thrown their way to triumph and to survive, making them a true testament of physical and mental strength.

So the next time you feel like dunking your head into that giant pile of excuses to justify whatever lack of success you may be having, just take a cue from the resilient snake and get moving.

The snake’s bad rap as being the embodiment of the devil isn’t going away any time soon.

But really, snakes rarely harm humans unless they are threatened or injured. They may be cold-blooded and slimy, but these guys are also fighters and survivors that truly deserve our respect.

Whether in the dark of the forest, arid caves, uncertain waters or deep, dark holes, these slithery wonders will no doubt continue to live up to their reputation as among the most feared and revered wild animals man has ever known.

Tags / Keywords: Health, Lifestyle, Year of the Snake, snakes

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