The Difference between Poison, Venom, and Toxin

There are some errors in word choice that even native speakers make, and one of the most common ones that I encounter from English speakers is confusing the words poison and venom. This mistake is so common that I’ve even seen science books getting it wrong. Fortunately, the difference is easy to understand, and by the end of this article, you’ll hopefully never make this mistake again.

First of all, what are toxins? A toxin is any chemical substance that negatively affects an organism. Every day, humans consume toxins in our food (e.g. pesticides), but our bodies do a good job of removing them. Toxins won’t kill us in small amounts, but in some situations the dosages are large enough to cause severe illness or death. Poison and venom are two examples of chemical substances that are toxic.

So if poison and venom are both toxins, what makes them different? Venoms are injected by a bite or sting, while poisons are consumed by the body out of choice. An easy way to remember this is, “If you bite it, it is poisonous. If it bites you, it is venomous.” For example, king cobras are among the most venomous animals in the world, as they can kill humans with one bite, whereas some frogs and mushrooms are posionous. They won’t bite you, but if you eat or lick them, they can kill. It is possible for an animal to be both venomous and poisonous, but these cases are rare.

Again, bear in mind that most native speakers get this wrong, so if you hear someone saying, “Watch out! There’s a poisonous snake in the room,” instead of saying, “That’s okay. I won’t eat it,” you’re probably best to run.

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