First Aid Phraseology: Venomous or Poisonous

What's the Difference?

Striking Rattlesnake
It takes action to turn poison into venom. Kendall McMinimy / Getty Images

Bees, spiders and snakes all have reputations for making us sick with their bites.

Is it because they're all poisonous? Would you believe that none of the bees, spiders or snakes in North America are poisonous? It's true.

Venomous, well that's a different story.

First of all, we can call all of them toxic. Toxin is the official name for a naturally occurring substance that causes your body to behave badly.

There's no official difference between poisons and venom as far as chemical compounds go. Toxins come in all sorts of different chemicals and can be created in more ways than I've ever counted.

The difference between whether a critter is venomous or poisonous has to do with how the toxin is delivered to us. I guess you could say it's not the present itself, but the thought that counts.

Passive Poisons

Poisons are passively applied. They get into your system through some act of yours -- you inhale, ingest or absorb it through touch. Most toxic plants are poisonous. Toadstools, for instance, are pretty harmless unless you eat them. Poison ivy is, well, poisonous if you touch it.

It's not just plants, but animals can also be poisonous. There are many species of caterpillar, for example, that are poisonous to touch. They don't have to do anything to you, just come in contact with your bare skin.

Those little, colorful poisonous frogs from the tropical rainforests don't inject anything. They don't bite; they just ooze poison.

Venom Requires a Verb

Indeed, there is a verb for getting venom. It's called being envenomated.

Venom is actively applied. Bees, wasps, spiders and snakes, must inject their toxins through biting or stinging.

Or, in the case of spitting cobras, squirt it at you. The toxin itself might only need to come in contact with bare skin to do its damage, but the difference is in the delivery. Venom requires a verb, an action for those of you who don’t remember English class, to reach its intended victim.

Does It Really Matter?

I sometimes refer to spiders or snakes as poisonous rather than always calling them venomous. The truth is, whether we're talking about a venom or a poison, they're all toxic and they all make you sick. In fact, one could argue that since there isn’t really a difference, they’re all poisons.

What we call venom or poison has to do with colloquial usage. Let’s face it, more people come to the internet looking for food poisoning than foodborne illness, even though in the scientific community the latter is preferred. For the record, however, many of the signs and symptoms of foodborne illness come from toxins created by the organisms growing on the food. Since those toxins are passively transferred to you when you eat the food, it is, strictly speaking, poisonous.

This isn’t an area where the word police should get too fired up. I occasionally get emails correcting my usage of these two terms, usually when poisonous is used to mean venomous.

At the end of the encounter, however, aren’t you still just as sick?

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