Venomous or poisonous?


Snakes! Even if they’re not venomous – wait – do you know the difference between venomous and poisonous?

Some people use the words interchangeably because once in the body, the chemicals do similar damage, attacking the heart, brain or other vital targets. But according to the Smithsonian: the terms do mean very different things. Traditionally, venomous creatures bite, sting or stab you to do their damage, while you have bite or touch poisonous critters to feel their effects. That means venomous organisms need a way in, like fangs or teeth. Poisonous organisms take a more passive approach, often lining the skin or other surfaces with toxic chemicals. Oh and by the way, the antidote to snake venom is technically called anti-venin, not anti-venom, although use of the latter has become more common.

Back to the snakes.

Rule number 1. Leave all snakes alone. Apply the following safety rules when traveling in areas where there are venomous snakes:

  • Walk carefully and watch where you step. Step onto logs rather than over them before looking and moving on.
  • Look closely when picking fruit or moving around water.
  • Do not tease, molest, or harass snakes. Snakes cannot close their eyes. Therefore, you cannot tell if they are asleep. Some snakes, such as mambas, cobras, and bushmasters, will attack aggressively when cornered or guarding a nest.
  • Use sticks to turn logs and rocks.
  • Wear proper footgear, particularly at night.
  • Carefully check bedding, shelter, and clothing.
  • Be calm when you encounter serpents. Snakes cannot hear and you can occasionally surprise them when they are sleeping or sunning. Normally, they will flee if given the opportunity.
  • Use extreme care if you must kill snakes for food or safety. Although it is not common, warm, sleeping human bodies occasionally attract snakes.

The polar regions are free of snakes due to their inhospitable environments. Other areas considered to be free of  venomous snakes are New Zealand, Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Ireland, Polynesia, and Hawaii. This means America does have  venomous snakes. Here are the ones to watch out for:

  • Photo by Bruce Hallman/USFWS. CC2.0

    American Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix)

This snake has light bronze coloring and a diamond pattern. It is found along the east coast and southern states, from Texas to New Jersey.



  • By Everglades NPS from Homestead, Florida, United States (Coral Snake, NPSPhoto) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
    Coral snake (Micrurus fulvius)

Found in southern coastal states like Louisiana and Florida, this snake can be identified by its stripes, which correspond to the rhyme, “Red on yellow, deadly fellow; Red on black, venom lack.”




  • Image: Bree McGhee,

    Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus)

This water snake is venomous, but not often fatal. Watch out for it along the eastern coastal states, like Virginia and the Carolinas.




  • Rattlesnake (Crotalus species)
Image: By Skeeze, CC0

This venomous snake is notorious in the American southwest, particularly west of the Mississipi, especially Texas and Arizona. It blends in with the light sand and sun-bleached rocks of deserts.