Venomous Vs. Poisonous Snakes: How to Tell the Difference?


Snakes come in so many varieties that it can be hard to know, which are considered venomous and which are considered poisonous. First, we need to look at what each term means.

Simply put, a venomous snake will inject its venom from its fangs, and a poisonous snake could kill you if you consume it. The only difference between a poisonous snake and a venomous snake is how the toxin they carry is delivered to the body.

Both venom and poison are considered toxic substances. A toxic substance is considered anything that will harm your body. Toxins that are directly injected into the body, such as the fangs of a snake, are considered to be venom. Toxins that are absorbed through the skin or other means, such as eating a toxic substance, is considered to be a poison.

The correct term to use when talking about snakes is venomous because the toxin is injected into our system through their fangs. Also, while a number of toxins fall under the classification of poisonous, such as bad food, venom from a snake is more specific. This is because snake venom contains active peptide toxins, which includes proteases. These bond to tissues and destroys them. Snake venom also contains neurotoxins, which works by disabling the signals used in our nervous system.

What happens though if you eat a snake that is venomous? If the toxins found in a snake harm you when you eat it, it is technically considered a poison, which is why it is referred to as a poisonous snake. Ingesting any kind of snake venom/poison would harm you, however, when injected directly into the bloodstream, it poses a greater threat. However, when ingested, the toxicity of the substance can be neutralized by our digestive system and stomach, and the effects may not be as critical.

3 Common Traits of Venomous Snakes

  • In the USA almost, all venomous snakes tend to be large and fat pit vipers, with the exception of coral snakes.
  • Rattlesnakes whose tail has a real rattle on the end.
  • They have pupils that are elliptical.

Some examples of the most common venomous snakes to be found in the USA are Diamondback, Copperhead, Coral Snake, and Cottonmouth.

How Snake Venom Works?

Venomous Vs. Poisonous Snakes

To understand snake venom and how it works we need to look at it as a poison that some animals release directly, via injection, into another animal. The poison is used for either defense or when hunting their prey. Depending on the type of animal releasing it defines what type of venom it is.

All species of reptiles secrete venom of some form, except for birds. Birds are actually seen to be very friendly in that respect. When the subject of venom, the first animal that we think of are snakes, which are widely known for their venomous bites. Snake venom is categorized into three groups; cytotoxic, hemotoxic, and neurotoxic.

Cytotoxic Snake Bites

A cytotoxic venom targets specific muscle groups or sites of the body, as well as causes the death of cells in the body. Symptoms are immediate swelling, blistering, or bruising at the site of the bit, dizziness, and nausea. The venom is composed of digestive enzymes and the tissue that it affects may need to be amputated should that tissue be allowed to die. Necrosis tends to occur within 48 hours of the bite.

Some snakes that carry cytotoxic venom include spitting cobras and large adders.

Neurotoxic Snake Bites

Neurotoxic venom affects the nervous system and brain by disrupting the signals they send, leading to paralysis, an inability to control one’s muscles, a low heart rate, blurred vision, paralyzation, difficulty speaking or breathing, and can lead to respiratory failure.

Some snakes that carry neurotoxic venom include cobras, mambas, rinkhals, and sea snakes. Mambas are considered to have a more serious bite due to the larger amount of toxins it can inject into the system.

Hemotoxic Snake Bites

Of the three it’s the hemotoxic venom that is the most lethal. Its name comes from the fact that the venom destroys red blood cells in the body. The hemotoxins also cause damage to the bloods ability to clot. The symptoms from a hemotoxic snake bite can include blood pressure to drop, as well as the destruction of the body’s organs and tissues.

You will also notice redness and swelling in the area of the snake bite. Bites are extremely painful and can lead to tissue becoming permanently damaged. Bites can also lead to death if help is not received in time.

Hemotoxic venom not only kills the snake’s victim, but it also aids in the digestive process by breaking down the proteins of the body. Death from a hemotoxic bite in comparison to other bites is much slower. Depending on the area bitten and the type of snake that gave the bite, humans can experience other issues like nausea, headaches, and disorientation.

All of these venoms are transferred via the snakes’ fangs. The hemotoxic venom is located in glands that are found in the head of the snake and there are 2 types; true and false venom glands. In the false venom glands, saliva is released, and these are found on the sides of the snake’s head, extending downwards. These are then divided into different ducts that attach to individual teeth. The true venom glands are the ones that are connected solely to a fang and found on both sides of the jaw.

A number of venomous snakes will have heads that are heart shaped. Should you see a snake like this it is advised that you stay clear of it. If you should be bitten you should seek immediate help. Try to remember which type of snake you were bitten by, as this will help medical professionals identify the venom type to treat.

So, in the question of whether snakes are called poisonous or venomous, the correct term is venomous, due to the snake actively injecting their prey with toxins. The toxins and how they are delivered into the body are what determines if the toxin is venomous or poisonous. You may have seen researches “milk” a snake to extract its venom. It can be helpful to learn how to identify snakes so that you know whether they are venomous or not.


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