What is the Difference Between Poison and Venom?

by Sankalan Baidya
a vial of green poison - difference between poison and venom

We come across these two terms quite often. There are two problems that we face when it comes to the terms poison and venom. First problem is that we use them interchangeably and the second problem is that we don’t know the context in which to use these words.

So, what is the difference between poison and venom? What actually do they refer to? In this quick and short writeup, we are going to demystify the terms. We are going to learn what each term refers to and about their technical usage.

Start reading when you are ready.

Difference Between Poison and Venom

Before we lay down the difference between the two, let us take a quick look at what they actually refer to.

Poison: It refers to harmful or toxic chemicals. A harmful or toxic chemical is either harmful to the environment we live in or is hazardous to the health

Venom: This term also refers to the exact same thing. Yes, venom also refers to harmful or toxic chemicals.

So, if both of them refer to harmful chemicals, then there should not be any problem in using the terms interchangeably!

Well, you are wrong!

Toxic chemicals are called poison or venom depending on the method of delivery or method of administration.

Let us learn about them!

poison vs. venom - the difference

It is Venom When it is Injected

When toxic chemicals are injected into a body, we refer to the toxic chemicals as venom. The only way venom can harm you is when it is directly injected into your body through the skin. If you swallow the venom, you will rarely experience any kind of health issue. Of course, if there are cuts and bruises inside your mouth, you will be in danger.

Venom can be produced only and only by living creatures in their bodies. For example, scorpions, snakes, spiders etc. can produce venom.

The living creatures that produce venom need to bite you or sting you in order to administer the venom into your body. Once they administer the venom into your body, you can die or you can have serious health issues. On the contrary, if you bite those animals, nothing will happen to you.

It is Poison When it is Inhaled or Consumed or Absorbed or Injected

Venom can only be injected. For poison, administration methods vary. You can inhale a poison or consume it or your body can absorb it or someone can inject it into your body using a needle.

For instance, you can inhale hydrogen cyanide gas. It is a poison. There are some toxic chemicals that will enter your body simply when you touch. The method of administration is absorption. Someone can administer the poison directly into your bloodstream using a needle. You can even consume a poison directly through your mouth (example: hemlock).

Your body itself is capable of creating poison inside it by chemical reactions between non-poisonous substances.

Further Clarification of Difference Between Poison and Venom

poison vs. venom difference

Whatever we said till now was just basic. If you want to learn more, you need to learn a few things from toxicology. In toxicology, there are specific definitions.

How toxicology defines poison?

A poison is any substance that can harm you because of chemical reactions that take place at molecular level. A poison can be produced outside the body of a living organism. For example, lye (sodium hydroxide) or phenol (carbolic acid).

How toxicology defines toxin?

A toxin is a poison that is produced inside the body of a living organism. So, every toxin that we know of is actually a poison but every poison is not necessarily a toxin.

How toxicology defines venom?

According to toxicology, venom is a type of secretion that contains toxins (poisons produced inside the body). Venom is to be injected.

So, by above definitions:

Venoms contain toxins and toxins are poisons and therefore, all venoms are poisons. But, all poisons are not venoms because all poisons do not contain toxins.

Clear so far?

Now the big question is, ‘what is the difference between a poisonous and venomous animal?’ Let us learn that as well!

Difference Between Poisonous and Venomous Animals

poison and venom difference

May be you know or may be you don’t know but there is a book titled “Casarett and Doull’s Toxicology: The Basic Science of Poisons.”

The book was authored by Findlay Ewing Russell, MD, Ph.D. He died in 2011 but he was one of the most prominent toxicologists of the world. He developed several protocols of toxicology that are widely used today.

Venomous Animals According to Dr. Russell

An animal is called venomous when that animal can produce a poison (toxin) inside a very highly developed groups of cells or secretory gland inside its body and can deliver the toxin through a bite or through a sting.

So, for you to be envenomed by that animal, the animal needs to either bite you or sting you.

Poisonous Animals According to Dr. Russell

An animal is called poisonous when that animal’s tissues are either partly or entirely toxic and the animal has no structure or mechanism that is specialized for delivering the toxin.

So, for you to be poisoned by that animals, all you have to do is to eat that animal or touch that animal (depending on the type of toxin produced by that animal).

Thus, by definition put forward by Dr. Russell:

Every venomous animal is a poisonous animal but every poisonous animal is not a venomous animal.

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What About Plants?

What about plants? Are [some] plants poisonous or venomous?

Technically speaking, the term ‘venomous’ is applied only in case of animals. In case of plants, we always use the term ‘poisonous.’ However, if you are looking at some carnivorous plants, the term ‘venomous’ may be applied.

Examples of Venomous Animals, Poisonous Animals and Poisonous Plants

Venomous Animals

Snakes in general are venomous and not poisonous. There is only one snake species that is both venomous and poisonous. That snake species is known as Asian Tiger Snake. It not only produces its toxins and delivers them with a bite but also stores poison in its skin. This stored poison is not something on its own. It actually comes from the toads that this species of snake feeds on.

Other venomous animals include Spiders, Stingrays, Wasps, Bees, Jellyfish, Platypuses, Gila Monsters, Scorpions, Blue-Ringed Octopus, etc. They administer their toxins through bites or stings.

Poisonous Animals

Some examples of poisonous animals include Poison Dart Frog, Blue-Capped Ifrit (a bird), Pufferfish, Pacific Newts (a type of Salamander), Blister Beetles etc.

Poisonous Plants

Water Hemlock, Deadly Nightshade, Castor Beans, Rosary Pea, Oleander, White Snakeroot, Cerbera Odollam, Lily of the Valley etc. are all poisonous plants. Did you know that even onions, garlic, chive and leek are poisonous but not to humans? They are poisonous to cats, dogs and certain types of livestock. Cats are way more sensitive to these!

That completes our explanation of the difference between poison and venom as well as poisonous and venomous animals. If you have any doubts, feel free to get in touch with us. We will be happy to help.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4

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