Venomous or Poisonous – What’s the Difference?

Harlequin Poison Dart Frog - Venomous or Poisonous – What’s the Difference?
Harlequin Poison Dart Frog

People often think of venom or poison as the same thing, but they are not. Even though people may use those terms interchangeably, there are differences in their origin, delivery system, and effects on the body. So, when is it correct to say that something is venomous or poisonous?

Venom is a toxin produced by animals, usually in specialized glands. It’s delivered to the victim through a bite or a sting. Animals use venom to capture prey and for defense from predators – and sometimes humans. For example, snakes, spiders, scorpions, and some species of fish, frogs, and insects produce venom. Venomous animals have specialized structures, such as fangs or stingers to deliver the venom into the victim’s body. The effects vary from mild pain and swelling to severe muscle paralysis and even death.

In contrast to venom, poison is a toxic chemical produced by plants, animals, fungi, microorganisms, or humans in a chemical lab. Poison is usually ingested, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin. For example, many plants produce poisons to protect themselves from herbivores and other potential threats. Poisonous mushrooms, toxic berries, and certain types of flowers are examples of plants that produce poisons.

The effects of poison can depend on the type and amount consumed. Some common effects include nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and even death. Many everyday household items are poisonous and must be secured so children or animals can’t ingest them. Medicines that promote healing or fight disease are often poisonous if taken in the wrong quantities or in the wrong way.

So, if someone talks about a poisonous snake or scorpion, they are using the wrong term. Those animals are venomous. Poison does its damage when ingested, inhaled, or touched. For example, a poison dart frog is poisonous, but wasps, spiders, and snakes can be venomous. Some animals or insects are poisonous if eaten but venomous if they bite or sting. Monarch butterflies are mildly poisonous to potential predators, but box jellyfish are highly venomous and deadly to humans. If in doubt, the word “toxic” covers both, but it’s not as precise.

When saying that an animal is venomous or poisonous, remember this. A poisonous animal, such as a poison dart frog, is always poisonous and does not choose to be. A venomous animal, such as a snake, must choose to administer the venom. Humans can choose to avoid poison, but often they do not. People can take poison by mouth or inject it into themselves or someone else. We call that foolishness or murder. Alcohol is a poison that people consume as a drink, sometimes resulting in death. Self-inflicted poisoning by illegal drugs such as fentanyl is causing many deaths in the United States.

Some people ask, “Why would a good God create venomous or poisonous animals?” There is a good reason because those toxins serve as a defense mechanism or a method to capture prey for food. The more troubling question is, “Why would intelligent humans choose to put poisons into their bodies?” When asking that question, remember that it all started with Adam and Eve. “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die’” (Genesis 2:16-17). The good news is that God provided the cure for the poison of sin. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

— Roland Earnst © 2023