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Animal poisons and the nervous system: what the neurologist needs to know
  1. J B Harris1,
  2. A Goonetilleke2
  1. 1School of Neurology, Neurobiology and Psychiatry, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK
  2. 2Department of Neurology, Newcastle General Hospital, Regional Neurosciences Centre, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK
  1. Correspondence to:
 Professor J B Harris
 School of Neurology, Neurobiology and Psychiatry, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, Newcastle upon Tyne NE2 4HH, UK;

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The vast majority of us experience trivial and sometimes inconvenient bites and stings, but we never imagine that the next bite or sting might precipitate a medical emergency. Similarly, we consume seafood with little real caution, confident that at worst we might suffer a brief gastrointestinal upset. There are, however numerous animals capable of inflicting a fatal bite or sting, and it can be estimated that around 100 000 persons per year worldwide die following an envenomation. Similar numbers of people are made seriously ill following the consumption of poisonous seafood. Most of these events occur within rural or coastal communities in South East Asia, Africa, South America, and the Indo Pacific. It is commonly thought, therefore, that such problems are too esoteric to warrant serious consideration in the west. The growing interest in travel and the increasing use of exotic foods means that more and more of us may find ourselves in a situation where a better understanding of bites stings and poisonous foodstuffs might be both interesting and useful.1,2


Snakes, spiders, scorpions, fishes, bees, wasps, sea anemones, and jelly fish are just a few of the animals that use venoms. The venom may be used primarily to capture and initiate the digestion of prey or to deter a potential predator, and a bite or sting inflicted on a human subject is most likely to occur because the animal concerned has been molested or disturbed. It is impossible to avoid making generalisations about envenoming bites or stings but it is wise not to jump to conclusions because things are rarely what they seem. For example, most snakes are non-venomous and harmless but some non-venomous snakes bite without hesitation. Some venomous snakes rarely bite (for example, sea snakes) and many venomous snakes will make a dry bite (that …

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