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Venom! What Does It Actually Do Inside Your Body?

Updated on April 25, 2016

Venom is a wonder of nature

Dangerous or not, venom is a wonder of the natural world. It's a poison that animals use in various ways depending on the species. Some animals use it for defence while others use it to catch prey and many use venom for both. For example the spitting cobras- there are a number of species - will spit venom at potential threats to defend itself, but also uses it's venom to kill prey.

However, snakes are not the only animals who have venom. There are numerous species who have this ability such as:

  • Spiders
  • Scorpions
  • Amphibians such as frogs and others
  • Lizards - such as the Gila monster
  • Fish, snails, octopus, jellyfish.
  • Insects such as bees, wasps etc.
  • Some mammals for example the short-tailed shrew from North America.
  • A number of bacteria also carry neurotoxins.

Having said this, not all venom is lethal to humans and there are different types. We'll have a look at these now.

The Puffer Fish, one of the most venomous creatures on the planet.
The Puffer Fish, one of the most venomous creatures on the planet. | Source

David Attenborough with a spitting cobra

Did you know?

Did you know?
1. Venom and poison are classed as two different things? When talking about venom, this is usually 'injected' into the body by fangs, spines, stingers and so on. When talking about poison this is generally ingested into the body - usually by swallowing or absorbing it through the skin.
2. Many more people die from wasp and bee stings in the USA than from venomous snake bites.
3. Animals can't die from their own venom. It's now believed that many animals such as snakes, make their own anti-venom to prevent being harmed from its own toxins.

Different types of venom

Animals that produce venom have specialised glands inside their bodies, ejecting the toxin through teeth/fangs, spines, stingers. In addition to venom being either a defensive weapon or to catch prey, in some animals it also acts as an aid to digestion.

There are many types of venom, but three of the main groups are:

  • Neurotoxins. The medical prefix 'neuro' relates to the nerves of the body and toxin is of course poison/venom. Therefore this type of venom would affect the nervous system. Effects such as suppressing breathing and the heart is common. Other symptoms may include muscle cramps, vomiting, paralysis, convulsions. With this type of venom used to catch prey, it's main aim is to kill by paralysing the lungs and/or heart.

  • Haemotoxin/hemotoxin The medical prefix 'Haemo/hemo' refers to the blood and as we've seen previously, 'toxin' is poison/venom. This type of venom then, primarily affects the blood and tissues of the body. It has the ability to break down blood cells and body tissues. In addition, this venom can also affect the major organs of the body. This type of venom frequently causes severe internal bleeding. However, it's not uncommon for blood to also seep out of the body orifices such as the nose, eyes and ears.

  • Cytotoxins The medical prefix 'cyto' refers to body cells and as we have already seen, toxin is poison/venom. This type of venom causes spontaneous death of the body cells. The body cells basically explode, releasing the cell fluid and contents into the body. This causes major swelling of the tissues and excruciating pain. In addition, severe damage to body organs and other structures will occur.

Venom itself is a highly evolved form of saliva that contains a rich complex of, sometimes thousands, of various enzymes and proteins. Many of these substances are harmless but others are known as 'super-toxic'. The reason that some venom is harmless while others lethal, depends on both the composition of the proteins and the percentage of toxic proteins within the venom.

We'll take a more in depth look at why venom can be so deadly to human beings.

Bite from a Brown Recluse spider.
Bite from a Brown Recluse spider. | Source
Did you know?
1. That about 70% of snake bites are 'dry bites'. This means that the snake is trying to scare the threat away rather than do harm by using its precious venom.
2. There are approximately 34,000 species of spider in the world. Although they are all venomous, only about 30 species are harmful to humans. In addition only female spiders are venomous.
The main signs and symptoms of snake bites.
The main signs and symptoms of snake bites. | Source
The sac spider is one species of only a few that have cytotoxic venom.
The sac spider is one species of only a few that have cytotoxic venom. | Source

Venom and the human body

As mentioned earlier, depending on the type of venom that has entered the body, this will affect specific areas. However, many animals, such as snakes, have compound venom that contains more than one type.

Blood cells in the body

Haemo/hemotoxic venom is a misleading term in a way. Although it does destroy red blood cells, this type of venom also has the ability to damage body tissues.

However, in the first instance this toxin does target the blood, killing off blood cells and also disrupting the blood's ability to clot properly. In order for blood to clot a substance called 'fibrinogen' needs to be present and there also needs to be a good number of special cells called platelets. Haemotoxic venom removes fibrinogen and destroys the platelets. The result in the body is not only severe internal bleeding but damage and failure of tissues and major organs. Death from this venom usually results from failure the heart, kidneys and liver but also bleeding from the brain.

This venom is however generally slow acting, although there are exceptions, and the least common of the venom groups. Death can occur about 24-72 hours after the venom has been injected. The pain can be severe and it's not unusual for amputation of a limb to occur due to the severe damage caused.

Normally when people are bitten there are no signs and symptoms at first. However, after 2-3 hours vomiting, nausea, confusion and headaches begin to develop. In addition, bleeding can be seen coming from body orifices as well as the area of the bite.

Some animals that have haemotoxic venom are:

  • Scorpions
  • Snakes
  • Spiders

Naturally, when we look at what this venom does to the human body, we can appreciate why it is so effective when catching the prey. Basically the animals bleed to death or more likely the animal is caught when it goes into shock. In addition, because venom is also used by the animal partly for digestion purposes, it's easy to understand why it does so much damage in the body.

With the viper group of snakes, their venom causes major clots to occur in the main artery leading to the heart with obvious serious consequences.

Nervous system

Neurotoxic venom as the name suggests affects the nervous system of the body. It does this by either damaging nerve cells or blocking the nervous system's ability to communicate. If you think about all the processes that the nervous system is involved with - muscle function, biological functions, proper working of the vital organs and so on, then anything that damages or interferes with the system could have devastating affects. Not only can neurotoxins stop the lungs from working but can also cause cardiac arrest as well as other potentially lethal affects. Needless to say, this type of venom is the most deadly.

In particular a group of snakes known as 'proteroglyphous' snakes such as the king cobra, mambas, some sea snakes, death adders and tiger snakes, can be lethal to humans as they cause respiratory arrest, meaning that your lungs stop functioning and you die by asphyxiation.

The most common symptoms that people will experience are - weakness/numbness in the limbs, problems with vision, memory loss, headaches and paralysis.

Animals that use neurotoxins include:

  • Spiders
  • Scorpions
  • Snakes
  • Honey bee
  • Some species of frog
  • Some species of snail
  • Some species of tick
  • Predaceous Wasp
  • Sea anemone
  • Puffer fish

General body cells and tissues

Cytotoxic venom is one that attacks body cells. There are numerous reactions that develop when this toxin enters the body. The main one is necrosis. This is basically when body cells and tissue begin to die because of lack of oxygen and nutrients and can have serious consequences, even resulting in death.

When a bite has introduced cytotoxic venom into the body there is severe swelling around the area. In addition, there is frequently bleeding and blistering of the site. This is the reaction seen when necrosis has developed. Vomiting and nausea can also occur as well as loss of consciousness. Another odd symptom is that with some snake bites, people can taste an odd metallic/mint/rubbery taste in their mouth. A the moment I can't find the reason for this symptom despite researching - so if any folks reading this hub know why this symptom occurs then please let us all know.

Animals that have cytotoxic venom include:

  • Some species of spider
  • Snakes, mostly from the viper group, have this form of venom, for example rattle snakes, puff adder, gaboon viper/adder, spitting cobras.

I hope this hub has been helpful in explaining the effects of venom on the body. However, just remember that animals on the whole - even the venomous ones - are not out to get us. Being cautious, knowledgeable, respectful and having a good dose of common sense is often all that is needed to keep people safe.


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  • Frank Atanacio profile image

    Frank Atanacio 3 years ago from Shelton

    what an educational hub.. first I never knew frogs had venom.. I loved catching and releasing them when I was a boy.. and its true they are equiped with venom for protaction and you're right they are not out to get us.. I did see a larger fish swallow a puffer and then spit it out when it expanded at a local aquarium once.. that was so cool..

  • mperrottet profile image

    Margaret Perrottet 3 years ago from Pennsauken, NJ

    Great hub with lots of interesting facts. I didn't realize that only female spiders were venomous, or that 70% of snake bites weren't poisonous. Voted up, interesting and useful.

  • Alphadogg16 profile image

    Kevin W 3 years ago from Texas

    Very informative hub. I am an avid reptile lover. I was unaware that some species of snails and ticks carried neurotoxins. Gave it a thumbs up.

  • profile image

    Vickiw 3 years ago

    Interesting but very scary stuff! I had a spider bite in South Africa many years ago, and my skin in that area of my leg still is hard, and has not recovered. I never had a snake bite myself but knew others that did. Just the thought gives me the creeps now!

  • kashmir56 profile image

    Thomas Silvia 3 years ago from Massachusetts

    Hi Robin, great interesting article and very well researched, some of this information i did not know before so thanks for helping me learn more about this subject .

    Vote up and more !!! Sharing !

  • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

    Gypsy Rose Lee 3 years ago from Riga, Latvia

    Thanks for this informative and most useful hub. Scary thing is venom. Lucky for me I've only seen the effects in the movies. Passing this on.

  • Seeker7 profile image

    Helen Murphy Howell 3 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Frank, lovely to see you as always!

    Yes there are tiny little frogs in the rain forests I think that have super poisonous skin so if you touch them you are in big trouble - not that I'd want to, I'm not into frogs or toads to be honest!! LOL!

    Wow! I'd like to have seen that with the puffer fish! No wonder the other one spat it out, hope it was ok and didn't get a spine full of venom!

  • Seeker7 profile image

    Helen Murphy Howell 3 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi mperrottet, many thanks for stopping by and for the vote up. Glad that you enjoyed the hub and there was quite a bit of information that was new to me as well when researching!

  • Seeker7 profile image

    Helen Murphy Howell 3 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Alphadogg16, many thanks for stopping by and glad that you enjoyed the hub. Also many thanks for the thumbs up. I'm a dog person rather than reptiles, but I think some of the most fascinating and beautiful animals on the planet are reptiles!

  • Seeker7 profile image

    Helen Murphy Howell 3 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Vickiw, many thanks for stopping by and for taking the time to leave a comment.

    I agree it is very scary stuff - the natural world sometimes pulls no punches! That's not surprising that you can still feel the area where the spider bite happened. The body goes into overdrive to get rid of the toxin and what you are feeling - the hard area of skin - is probably the affects of the body both fighting the toxin and repairing the tissues around the bite.

    Luckily I'm from Scotland, so we don't really have animals that are all that venomous - the small adder is about the only one, but even then it's very rare for people or animals to be badly affected by it's venom. How people cope in places like South Africa with all the spiders, snakes, scorpions and heaven knows what else, I've no idea and I'm like you, as fascinated as I am with this subject, it scares me as well!

  • Seeker7 profile image

    Helen Murphy Howell 3 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Tom, lovely to hear from you and glad that you enjoyed the hub. When doing the research there was quite a few bits and pieces that were knew to me as well. But that's what makes research and learning so enjoyable, you never get to the stage where you know everything and that's what I enjoy!

    Many thanks for the vote up and share!!

  • Seeker7 profile image

    Helen Murphy Howell 3 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Rasta always lovely to hear from you. Glad that you enjoyed the hub and yes, venom is a very scary thing! I've been stung by a wasp and a bee but thankfully, that's about it!

  • gags3480 profile image

    GAGANPREET SINGH BHATIA 3 years ago from Kanpur, India

    I don't have much knowledge about reptiles but his sounds informative.

    Voted up & shared.

  • Seeker7 profile image

    Helen Murphy Howell 3 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi gags3480, many thanks for stopping by and glad that you enjoyed the hub!

  • collegedad profile image

    collegedad 3 years ago from The Upper Peninsula

    Very interesting and well done. I worked with venomous snakes in the late 1990s and have the utmost respect for them. There are a lot of misnomers about venom. Thanks for clearing up several!

  • Seeker7 profile image

    Helen Murphy Howell 3 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi collegedad - many thanks for stopping by and for the follow on Twitter!

    That's interesting that you worked with venomous snakes - as much as I find them fascinating, I would be too scared I think! I guess I'm lucky to be in Scotland where we only have the tiny adder, and although venomous tends to be very shy and timid. However, reptiles of all kinds do interest me a lot!

  • Seeker7 profile image

    Helen Murphy Howell 3 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi SamitaJassi,

    Glad you enjoyed the hub and thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.

  • Kristen Howe profile image

    Kristen Howe 17 months ago from Northeast Ohio

    Great hub. Real informative to know about venom and venomous reptiles and spiders. Nitpick: scorpions is misspelled in the middle of the hub. I'm sure it was a typo.

  • Seeker7 profile image

    Helen Murphy Howell 17 months ago from Fife, Scotland

    Glad you enjoyed the hub and to correct you - you're not having a 'nitpick' I appreciate when people point things out and I can get them sorted. I do proof read but I'm sure I get to a stage where I just don't see the mistakes! I wish I could afford a professional proofreader! Lol!

    Many thanks for stopping by.

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