CEPI Curiosities: Venom vs. Poison

CEPI Curiosities: Tales from Medical History's Strange Side

Hello again, fellow historio-medico-philes, and welcome to another installment of CEPI Curiosities. This time around, we have a guest contributor. Vashon Chapman, a student in our Karabots Junior Fellows Program, is here to share you some insights from his research into venom and poison.

Take it away, Vashon!

Many of us might know what venom and poison are and know the phrase “If it bites you and you die it’s venomous and if you bite or touch it and die it is poisonous, but we tend to use them in the wrong manner or interchangeably. Poison and venom are NOT the same; they have different meanings and uses. A poison is any substance that can cause severe organ damage or death if ingested, breathed in, or absorbed through the skin. Venom is a poisonous secretion of an animal, such as a snake, spider, or scorpion, usually transmitted to prey or to attackers by a bite or sting. According to A .Calmette M.D. “An animal is said to be venomous when it posses the power of inoculating its venom.” However both of these toxins have one big similarity: they both inflict pain or illness and can cause death.

Let’s Talk Snake Venom

Most snakes have more than one type of toxins in their venom like cobras, mambas, coral snakes, banded kraits and yellow-bellied sea snakes making them very dangerous. There are 20 different types of snake venom. The main types of venoms are Hemotoxic, Neurotoxic, and Cytotoxic venom. Hemotoxic venom destroys red blood cells and disrupts blood clotting, causing significant tissue and organ damage. A RattleSnake injects hemotoxic venom into its prey through slender fangs with tubes at the end where the venom lays. Neurotoxic Venom causes drowsiness, blurred vision, difficulty speaking, and  paralysis which can cause the lungs to stop working. The Death Adder is an example of a snake with Neurotoxic Venom. It injects 40 to 100 mg of venom per bite and can cause death if not treated within six hours. Cytotoxic venom causes pain, swelling and tissue damage. The spitting cobra actually has both cytotoxic venom and a small amount of neurotoxic venom.

Image of an unadorned puff adder from 1873

Did you know: In India it is regarded as a crime to kill a cobra when it enters a hut because of religious beliefs. In fact people offer them prayers and food. However in the Indian peninsula alone, the cobra, the krait, and other extremely venomous species of snakes cause every year an average of 25,000 deaths.

Not all snakes are the same the weight and length of snakes determines the weight of the poisonous gland. For example an 1lb snake with a length of 2ft 1 inch has a weight gland of  7 ½  grains. Compared to a snake that weighs 3 lbs 9 oz with a length of 4ft has a weight gland of 12 ½ grains.

Did you know: that The Asian Tiger Snake is both venomous and poisonous. The snake gets its poison from eating frogs and stores it in the nuchal glands of their neck.

How to Treat a Snakebite

In order to treat a snake bite, according to A. Calmette, M.D., the wound should first be washed with a fresh solution of hypochlorite of lime. Then 10. C.C of liquid serum or 1 gram of dry serum dissolved in 10 C.C of boiled water, is injected into the subcutaneous areolar tissue of the abdomen on the right or left side. There is no advantage of injecting on the actual spot of the bite. The serum is best when injected into loose tissue of the abdominal wall. If bitten by a larger snake such as a cobra it is preferred to inject three whole doses of serum at once.

All About Poison

Now that we know about venom, let’s talk about poison. Poison is a substance that is capable of causing the illness or death of a living organism when introduced or absorbed. There are different types of toxins in poison just like in venom. For example an golden poison dart frog’s poison is batrachotoxin. This toxin causes numbness to the tissue if comes into contact and can cause muscle and nerve depolarization, fibrillation, arrhythmias, and heart failure if comes into the body. Scientists are even researching how batrachotoxin could be used as an ingredient in pain-killer ointment.

Did you know that the Indians of Western Colombia use the golden poison dart frog toxins on their blow darts to poison and kill animals and enemies?

Pufferfish are also poisonous animals. Pufferfish are not poisonous when touched. They store tetrodotoxin in their liver and sex organs and release the toxin when eaten. Tetrodotoxin interferes with the transmission of signals from nerves to muscles and causes an increasing paralysis of the muscles of the body. It is 1,000 times more powerful than cyanide. In Tokyo, pufferfish (or “fugu”) is considered an Japanese delicacy. However, restaurants that serve fugu must be licensed and the butchers have to be licensed for safety reasons because of the risk of being poisoned by this delicacy. 50 years ago, over 100 people died a year from fugu poisoning now the number has decreased to 3 per year because of the licensing of the butchers.

1875 drawing of a pufferfish

Did you know that The Hooded Pitohui is the first discovered poisonous bird. The bird gets its poison from the Choresine beetle which is apart of the birds diet.  

Treatment for fugu poisoning

Symptoms usually occur between 10-45 minutes after eating the fish such as vomiting and numbness around the mouth. Medical attention should be sought immediately if feeling any symptoms.

One last fun fact: Snake vs Mongoose

The Mongoose and Hedgehog have an natural immunity to snake venom but they are not completely immune. A. Calmette, the member of the French Institute and of The Academy of medicine, experimented and accounted a story of an naja bungarus snake and a mongoose. Calmette introduced a mongoose into a cage containing a naja bungarus. The snake rose up immediately and struck at the mongoose but missed and the mongoose escaped from being seized. When the snake went to strike the mongoose again, the mongoose opened its mouth and sprang upon the snake’s head, crushing its skull in seconds.

Until next time, catch you on the strange side!

Sources

http://www.timsreptiles.co.za/venom/types-of-snake-venom-and-their-effects-on-humans

Zedi, Timothy. “Tim’s Reptiles.” Tims Reptiles. N.p., 18 May 2014. Web. 23 June 2016

https://www.thailandsnakes.com/venom-types-in-thailand-snakes/

“Venom Types – Thailand Snakes | Venomous | Photos | Videos | ID.” Thailand Snakes Venomous Photos Videos ID. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 June 2016.

http://futurism.com/what-is-the-difference-between-venom-poison-and-toxins/

Creighton, Jolene. “What Is the Difference Between Venom, Poison, and Toxins?” Futurism What Is the Difference Between Venom Poison and Toxins Comments. N.p., 27 Feb. 2016. Web. 30 June 2016.

https://nationalzoo.si.edu/animals/amazonia/facts/fact-poisondartfrog.cfm

“Poison Dart Frogs.” Poison Dart Frog Fact Sheet. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 June 2016.

http://www.wou.edu/las/physci/ch350/Projects_2006/Grimes/

Grimes, Holly. “Batrachotoxin.” Batrachotoxin. N.p., 7 Dec. 2006. Web. 01 July 2016.

http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/fish/pufferfish/

“Pufferfish, Pufferfish Pictures, Pufferfish Facts – National Geographic.” National Geographic. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 June 2016.

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