Venom, Poison, and Toxicity

There is a great deal of confusion about the terms venom, poison, and toxicity, and they are often used in an imprecise manner. However, the subject is great fun, so let’s explore it a bit.

First, we should clear up the difference between venom and poison. Venom is a substance that is generally injected, such as through a bite. Poison is something that is ingested, such as by eating or inhaling. So, these words relate to how the substance is gotten from point A to point B. Therefore, it is not correct to describe a snake as poisonous, unless it caused you some reaction if you ate it (beyond the thought of eating a snake, that is).

Dance Macabre

Dance Macabre

Monarch Butterflies, on the other hand, are poisonous. They take up toxic substances from the food source of the caterpillars, the milkweed plants, and by concentrating the toxins in their body, they become poisonous to consume. This is a defensive mechanism, not so much for the individual, but for the species as a whole. Any single individual might get eaten, but the effect on the eater is hoped to be so unpleasant as to cause it to not want to eat another one, so the entire species benefits.

Toxicity refers more to the effects of poison or venom. It is a descriptive term used to characterize the medical impact. So, venom can be more or less toxic and still be venom. All spiders are venomous (that is, they inject a venom), but not all spiders are equally toxic, and therefore dangerous, to people.

And, not to put too fine an edge on it, there are things that are toxic without being venom or poison. If you save up a bunch of your saliva, and then loaded it into a syringe and injected it into your skin, you would find that it has a toxic effect on the injection site. That is, the proteins in the saliva would begin to act upon the proteins in your tissues, but we hardly consider humans venomous.

Venom is found throughout the animal kingdom and serves a wide variety of purposes. Some of the most dangerous animals are venomous. Venom can help secure food, as in wasps that sting their victims to lay eggs upon for feeding the larva, or in shrews that bite their prey and inject venom to help immobilize it. Spiders, too, inject venom, which helps immobilize and kill they prey, but it also begins the digestive process so the spider can feed upon the liquefied remains.

Venom can be defensive. For example, a colony of honey bees does not need venom to feed, but uses it as a deterrent to would-be intruders on the hive. Fish, such as the lionfish, have spines with venom that can be injected into attackers upon being bitten. And the male duckbilled platypus has a spin on its hind legs that can inject venom, used again rival males in courtship combat.

Snakes are some of the best known, and most misunderstood, of the venomous animals, and snake venom is diverse in its function and toxicity. In general, snake venom falls into two broad categories: hemotoxic and neurotoxic, but in reality, most snakes have components of both.

Hemotoxic means that the components in the venom attack tissues, like in the spider example, such that the venom is breaking down the tissues of the victim in a pre-digestion process. Such venom can cause extensive damage to tissues, great pain, and cause death slowly over a period of time.

Neurotoxic venoms act upon the nerves system, disrupting the ability of the nerves to send and receive messages. The effect of this kind of venom is that critical nervous system signals stop, such as the signal to your lungs to breath, or to your heart to beat. This kind of venom can act very quickly to cause death.

The vipers, the rattlesnakes, copperheads, cottonmouth in North America, have venom that is mostly hemotoxic, with lesser amount of neurotoxic components. The elapids, the coral snake in North America, and its relatives like the cobras, have venom that is mostly neurotoxic.

So now you can be erudite at parties when friends say things like “Watch out, that black widow you are about to sit on it poisonous!” You can smile politely as you sit, and say “Actually, it is venomous. Let me tell you all about it.”

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Venomous snakebites

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