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10 Poisons Used To Save Lives

[WARNING: Spider Image] We have already written a list about poisons that we love to eat, so we can consider this a sequel of sorts. In this list we look at a variety of substances (poisons and venoms) that are normally things we would avoid as they can kill or badly damage us, but are found in the medicine bottles and pill boxes of doctors and pharmacists around the world. If you have more to add, be sure to do so in the comments.




Warfarin is an anticoagulant. It was initially marketed as a pesticide against rats and mice and is still popular for this purpose, although more potent poisons such as brodifacoum have since been developed. A few years after its introduction, warfarin was found to be effective and relatively safe for preventing thrombosis and embolism (abnormal formation and migration of blood clots) in many disorders. It was approved for use as a medication in the early 1950s and has remained popular ever since; warfarin is the most widely prescribed anticoagulant drug in North America. Despite its effectiveness, treatment with warfarin has several shortcomings. Many commonly used medications interact with warfarin, as do some foods, and its activity has to be monitored by frequent blood testing.


Cone Snail Venom

Cone Snail

Cone snails are medium-sized to large, sophisticated predatory sea snails. These snails hunt and immobilize prey using a modified radular tooth along with a poison gland containing neurotoxins; this is launched out of its mouth in a harpoon-like action. Live cone snails should be handled with care or not handled at all, as they are capable of “stinging” humans with unpleasant results. The sting of small cones is no worse than a bee sting, but the sting of a few of the larger species of tropical cone snails can be serious or even fatal to human beings. The venom of some cone snails, such as the Magician cone, Conus magus, shows much promise for providing a non-addictive pain reliever 1000 times as powerful as, and possibly a replacement for, morphine. The first painkiller Ziconotide derived from cone snail toxins was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in December 2004 under the name “Prialt”. Other drugs are in clinical and preclinical trials, such as compounds of the toxin that may be used in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and epilepsy.




The roots of Aconitum ferox (Wolfsbane) supply the Nepalese poison called bikh, bish, or nabee. It contains large quantities of the alkaloid pseudaconitine, which is a deadly poison. Aconitum palmatum yields another of the bikh poisons. The root of Aconitum luridum, of the Himalaya, is said to be as virulent as that of A. ferox or A. napellus. In Western medicine preparations of aconite were used until just after the middle of the 20th century, but it is no longer employed as it has been replaced by safer and more effective drugs and treatments. Internal uses were also pursued, to slow the pulse, as a sedative in pericarditis and heart palpitations, and well diluted as a mild diaphoretic, or to reduce feverishness in treatment of colds, pneumonia, quinsy, laryngitis, croup, and asthma due to exposure. Taken internally, aconite acts very notably on the circulation, the respiration, and the nervous system. The pulse is slowed, the number of beats per minute being actually reduced, under considerable doses, to forty, or even thirty, per minute. Interestingly, the wolfsbane flower was used to identify supposed werewolves. If the flower cast a yellow shadow on the suspected shape-shifter’s chin, the werewolf test was positive.



F Digitalis Candymountain

Depending on the species, the digitalis plant may contain several deadly physiological and chemically related cardiac and steroidal glycosides. Thus, the digitalis has earned several more sinister monikers: Dead Man’s Bells, and Witches’ Gloves. The entire plant is toxic (including the roots and seeds), although the leaves of the upper stem are particularly potent, with just a nibble being enough to potentially cause death. Medicines from foxgloves are called “Digitalin”. It is used to increase cardiac contractility (it is a positive inotrope) and as an antiarrhythmic agent to control the heart rate, particularly in the irregular (and often fast) atrial fibrillation. It is therefore often prescribed for patients in atrial fibrillation, especially if they have been diagnosed with heart failure.


Copperhead Venom

Copperhead Big

The copperhead is an ambush predator: it takes up a promising position and waits for suitable prey to arrive. Like most North American viperids, these snakes prefer to avoid humans and, given the opportunity, will leave the area without biting. However, unlike other viperids they will often “freeze” instead of slithering away, and as a result many bites occur from people unknowingly stepping on or near them. Copperhead venom has an estimated lethal dose of around 100 mg, and tests on mice show its potency is among the lowest of all pit vipers, and slightly weaker than that of its close relative, the cottonmouth. Copperheads often employ a “warning bite” when stepped on or agitated and inject a relatively small amount of venom, if any at all. The venom of the Southern copperhead has been found to hold a protein called “Contortrostatin” that halts the growth of cancer cells and also stops the migration of the tumors to other sites. It will probably be ten or more years before contortrostatin is used in practical treatment but it has shown to be a novel anti-cancer drug in the lab.




Hemlock is one of the most widely known poisons. The most important and toxic alkaloid in hemlock is coniine, which has a chemical structure similar to nicotine. Coniine is a neurotoxin, which disrupts the workings of the central nervous system and is toxic to humans and all classes of livestock. Coniine causes death by blocking the neuromuscular junction in a manner similar to curare; this results in an ascending muscular paralysis with eventual paralysis of the respiratory muscles which results in death due to lack of oxygen to the heart and brain. Death can easily be prevented by artificial ventilation until the effects have worn off 48–72 hours later. Ingestion of Poison Hemlock in any quantity can result in respiratory collapse and death. For an adult the ingestion of more than 100 mg of coniine (approximately 6 to 8 fresh leaves, or a smaller dose of the seeds or root) may result in fatality. Despite its deadly reputation, poison hemlock has been used as a sedative and for its antispasmodic properties. It was also used by Greek and Persian physicians for a variety of problems, such as arthritis.


Deadly Nightshade


Atropine is a tropane alkaloid extracted from deadly nightshade, jimsonweed (Datura stramonium), mandrake and other plants of the family Solanaceae. Injections of atropine are used in the treatment of bradycardia (an extremely low heart rate), asystole and pulseless electrical activity (PEA) in cardiac arrest. Atropine’s actions on the parasympathetic nervous system inhibits salivary, sweat, and mucus glands. This can be useful in treating hyperhidrosis, and can prevent the death rattle of dying patients. Because of its extremely important use in medicine, this poison is a core medicine in the World Health Organization’s “Essential Drugs List”, which is a list of minimum medical needs for a basic health care system.


Yellow Scorpion Venom

Kenya Giant Yellow Scorpion-Lg.Jpg

The venom from another menacing arachnid is being used to help treat cancer. Researchers at the Transmolecular Corporation in Cambridge, Mass., have isolated a protein that occurs in the venom of the Israeli yellow scorpion. This protein has been shown to seek out and bind itself to the types of cancerous cells found in gliomas, a type of brain cancer that’s particularly difficult to treat. The researchers created a synthetic version of the protein and attached radioactive iodine solution to it. When introduced into the bloodstream, the protein seeks out glioma cells and binds to them, carrying the radioactive solution along for the ride. The solution then destroys the cells — and with enough treatments, the cancer. [source]


Chilean Rose Tarantula Venom

Chilean Rose Haired Tarantu

Biophysicists from the University at Buffalo are using a protein from the venom of the Chilean Rose tarantula to combat death from heart attacks. The walls of your cells have tiny channels that open when the cell stretches. Among other body functions, these channels are responsible for the contraction of heart muscles. When these channels open too wide (which can happen from stretching the heart muscles over time), they allow a flood of positive ions into the cell. These extra ions disrupt the electrical signals in the heart, causing the organ to fibrillate (beat wildly and irregularly). The protein from the Chilean tarantula venom binds to these channels, which can block the positive ions from passing through. This could ostensibly prevent fibrillation — and hopefully death — if delivered during a heart attack. [source]



Barley Ergot

Man has a long history with ergot – a fungus which infects rye (which is then transferred to humans who eat the grain). Ergotism causes hallucinations and attendant irrational behavior, convulsions, and even death. Other symptoms include strong uterine contractions, nausea, seizures, and unconsciousness. Consumption can lead to amputation of limbs which are damaged by the fungus. Since the middle ages, controlled doses of ergot were used to induce abortions and to stop maternal bleeding after childbirth. Ergot alkaloids are used in products such as Cafergot (containing caffeine and ergotamine or ergoline) to treat migraine headaches. It is also used in a variety of treatments for Parkinson’s disease. Ergotism has even been blamed (though it is not likely the true cause) for the extremely bizarre dancing plague which struck Europe in the 1500s.

Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. Text is derived from Wikipedia.

Listverse Staff

Listverse is a place for explorers. Together we seek out the most fascinating and rare gems of human knowledge. Three or more fact-packed lists daily.

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  • ahmad

    Honestly with all my heart, a boring list ;(
    I like mysteries.

  • Kammerer

    Great list!!!

  • haha

    Spiders? weird ><

  • ahmad

    But dont stop making lists.
    Love the rest.

  • deeeziner

    Thank you for another nice list Jamie.

    I would like to add the medication Byetta, used in the treatment of Type II diabetes. It is derived from the venom of the Gila Monster lizard, a native of the Sonoran desert. (Which is also where I call home.)

    The active ingredient of the venom is exenatide.

    Byetta can lower glucose significantly in people with type 2 diabetes. Some patients have reported that their blood sugar has dropped to normal.

    Been gone from LV awhile, so let me say congrats on the new site Jamie….It seems to be a place to indulge the “cellar dweller” interests that so many here have a taste for. (me included….lol).

  • Tricia

    I love lists like this. It always makes me wonder who had thoughts like this. “Hmmm I think I’ll take this poison and put it into sick people to see if it’ll work.”

    It’s the same with people who eat stuff like blue cheese. “Hmmm this cheese is clearly going rotten. Let’s see how it tastes, shall we?”

    Good stuff, JFrater.

  • missmozell

    Ironic that the poisons come from both creepy crawlies and some beautiful plants. All natural, proving that Mother Nature can be a mean mutha. I, myself, have been on Warfarin for some time. It’s not easy to reach and maintain a theraputic dosage. Once my blood level was so high they snatched me into the hospital, and the nurses were telling me not to get out of bed unsupervised. They wre afraid I’d fall and start bleeding internally.

  • elise

    intersting list! its hard to believe that things that can kill you can also be good for you

  • Paro

    V interesting list…I saw a doc about Indian snake hunters who capture venomous creatures and sell them on to doctors to create antidotes against the same snake.

  • undaunted warrior

    Great list JF I enjoyed the read.

    Im going to find myself a Copperhead now to sort out my garden moles – Cheers.

  • Rufus

    extraction of snake venom is pretty odd

    they force the snake’s mouth open and plugs it’s fangs into the plastic membrane of a cup, putting a hole into it and securing the fangs in position
    the venom then slowly drips into the cup
    sometimes tne venom extracting guy squeezes the snake’s head or neck to make the venom drip faster

  • robfl

    wow, awesome list! this is the kind of stuff you can repeat to make yourself sound smart.

    unreal that something as deadly as hemlock has potential helpful uses. some many times in history its been used for the deadly purposes.

  • Kerri

    Awesome list. I work in a research pharmacy, so I did know about some of these things, but some of them were pretty interesting!

  • Kibey

    @elise (8):

    Why is it hard to believe?
    Water can kill you.
    Air can kill you.
    Everything can kill you.

  • oouchan

    Cool list! Didn’t know about wolfsbane. I had always thought it was fake. Glad that you included deadly nightshade….that was my favorite.
    Also thank you very much for the spider warning. Saved me from an attack. :)

    @deeeziner (5): Welcome back!

  • archangel

    Wow… so many poisons… so many uses. Nice and informative list =]

  • ianz09

    I like how out of all the disturbing imagery on or linked to by this site (see serial killers, spooky travel destinations, etc.), you still have to warn about images of spiders. Good list though, very interesting and educational.

  • Carole

    Some researchers think Ergot poisoning was also responsible for the strange behaviour in Salem, which resulted in the witch trials.

  • Would love to have been around for that extremely bizarre dancing plague.

  • crispin

    What about the band Poison? They saved my life ;)

  • theenie

    Very nice list, I found it amazing the poisons we use to save lives when you expect poison to only be used to snuff them out.

    Also, someone should write a 10 controversies surrounding Kanye West list considering the incident at the VMAs.

  • nuriko


  • JLo

    I’m on Warfarin (also known as coumadin), and have been since I was a baby. It’s history is quite interesting. It was initially discovered in the 1920s because it was killing lots of cattle that were haemorrhaging excessively after minor procedures. That was what led to its initial usage as a rat poison, I believe. Later, after a soldier unsuccessfully tried to kill himself with an overdose of warfarin, scientists realized it could be used therapeutically. Anywho. I’ve lived my life with Warfarin, so it really doesn’t seem that huge of a deal for me. I have to watch those leafy greens and what not, but other than that, I’m fine.

  • Kreachure

    Cool list, very informative and– YAAAAAAAUGH!

    You give a spider warning, but you leave the scorpion a surprise? That’s just evil! Pure evil!

    Just kidding, pictures of arachnids don’t scare me. Pictures of insects, though… now that’s the stuff of nightmares. :P

  • Marcus

    “[WARNING: Spider Image]”

    Are people that scared of spiders that they have to be warned of Spider images? Just curious BTW.

  • oouchan

    @Marcus (25): Yes. I have arachnophobia so a picture will set me off. I thank Jaime for putting that warning up for me and others with similar fears. :)

  • mom424

    @undaunted warrior (10): Hahahaha. Awesome!

    Great list btw. Even if I was aware that some of these were in use, I wasn’t aware of the mechanics or how their attributes can be put to good use.

    Ergot is a devil drug – ask anyone who’s had induced labour.

  • ChevalierDupin

    Interesting list…but no jellyfish?

  • Benmark

    I, too, am distressed and disgusted by spiders.

    However, you must be the worlds biggest wuss bag to be frightened by a picture of a spider.

    That’s just sad.

  • deeeziner

    @oouchan (15): Thanks Oouchan, it’s good to be back in the fold. :)

  • dan

    Love those beautiful flowers, but maybe not to eat.

  • undaunted warrior

    @ mom424 – I leave my car at home during the week and travel to work on my trusty Vespa scooter, this morning after strapping on my lunch and tea flask I rode the 300 meters to the front gate, then I hit a tunnel, this mole I have called Bert. The front wheel sank – me ass over kettle my lunch and tea flask – still to be found.

    Jokes aside these critters can cause damage big time.

    Great list Jamie – the comments were slow
    , so I posted a quick comment to mom – excuse.

  • Lifeschool

    Oops, yes it was me above.

  • General Tits Von Chodehoffen

    Isn’t puffer fish used for something?

  • Craig


  • theoriginalpoojer

    omg!!! the dreaded spider image!!!

  • lo

    jfrater, when are you going to reveal yesterday’s “unknown author”?

  • Ginifer

    Having just recently become addicted to this site I felt I needed to say, yet another good list!Many members of my family use warfarin and this is a good fact to tell them (annoy them, whatever)

  • Pearl

    I had no idea about the Chilean Rose tarantula. I guess Im not readin that much. anyway that’s why i check listverse.

  • Iakhovas

    @mom424 (27): Do they use Ergot to induce labour? My girlfriend was induced about 6 weeks ago and I have never seen a person in that much pain in my life. Morphine did absolutely nothing. Maybe she needed some Cone Snail venom?

  • JessicaKarli

    Thanks for the spider warning.

  • jdrinehart

    hello all. well, first of all, i would like to say that i too enjoyed this list, though i was familiar with most of them already.
    number 34 (General Tits Von Chodehoffen): you asked about puffer fish? well, to my knowledge there isn’t any on-going research regarding it but i will explain a little about what venom it uses. in japan, if prepared properly, it is considered a fabulous dish, known as fugu. however, many people (over 100 per year) die of fugu poisoning. in the puffer fish, a few certain organs (especially the sex organs) have what is known as TTX or tetrodotoxin. it is considered one of the most naturally potent and lethal toxins in the world. it is several hundreds times more lethal than hydrogen cyanide and something like 1000 times more potent than strychnine. TTX is a very powerful neurotoxin and affects the central nervous system, very similar in action to that of AChE inhibitors (acetylcholinesterase inhibitors). basically, it causes extremely and rapid paralysis and the victim dies of either respiratory failure (from the diaphragm not being able to contract) or heart failure from the cardiac cells (cardiomyocytes) not being able to function due to paralysis. in nature, the puffer fish is not the only animal that uses TTX. you may have heard of the blue-ringed octopus from the waters surrounding australia. what is interesting about the blue-ringed octopus is that is does not make the TTX itself, but rather a special species of bacteria that lives within the venom gland itself is the source of the deadly toxin. i do know that TTX has been used in research for an extremely potent analgesic (pain killer). in the article above, the cone snail is the source of ziconotide, which is the most powerful analgesic on the market to date. it is 100 times more potent than fentanyl and 1000 times more potent than morphine. however, from the literature i have read about TTX, it has the potential for being 3000 times more potent than morphine, as a pain-killer. amazing, huh?
    3 other toxins/venoms that i would like to mention that are used in medicine.
    1. aggrastat (tirofiban) is a glycoprotein IIb/IIIa platlet inhibitor. basically, it is a VERY powerful anticoagulant and stops clots from forming. it comes from a snake in the middle east known as the saw-scaled viper. very, very deadly snake. in fact, of all the venomous snakes in the world (and only about 250 of them are lethal to humans), it probably kills more people in the world than any other snake. in the united states every year, roughly 15,000 people are bitten. perhaps only 15 will die, and many of those deaths are from complications with the antivenom. however, in india alone, over 20,000 people die every year from snake bite and the major cause of those deaths is from the saw-scaled viper.
    2. integrilin (eptifibatide)-is another glycoprotein IIb/IIIa platlet inhibitor. you may have never heard of these last 2 medicines but they are in the same category as the commonly prescribed anticoagulant medicine “plavix”. integrilin comes from a small rattlesnake in the united states called the pygmy rattlesnake. it is very small but despite it’s size (less than 2 feet), it packs a punch with it’s venom.
    3. botox-is a curious and interesting case of toxins being made into medicines. botox is short for “botulinum toxin”, otherwise known in toxicology (and toxinology) as without a doubt THE MOST LETHAL NATURAL SUBSTANCE KNOWN TO MAN! It is the most acutely toxic substance known, with a median lethal dose of about 1 ng/kg (intravenously), meaning one teaspoon can kill 30 million people. or, 1 pure drop of botulism toxin is enough to kill over 100,000 people. now that is toxic, wouldn’t you say? and people use it every day to put in their faces! how much do you trust those pharmaceutical companies and researchers? ha ha. sorry i have written so much. if you want to know more medicine from venom/toxins, snakes, or other venomous critters, drop me an email: [email protected].


  • Mr. Hands


  • lol

    I have been using Cafergot for years for my migraines.
    Thankfullly, I’ve never had the urge to dance uncontrollably for days on end.

  • lol

    Mr. Hands.
    If it’s so boring why did you read it?
    If it’s so boring, why did you bother commenting?

  • Kate

    Arsenic is used to kill heartworms in dogs.

    Nice list Jamie!

  • General Tits Von Chodehoffen

    @jdrinehart (42): Thanks man. You seem like one smart mofo haha.

  • thepoisongarden

    The picture at #4 ‘Deadly nightshade’ is, in fact, Solanum dulcamara, woody nightshade.

    The two plants are very different in appearance.

  • knox

    @lo (37): the last comment on that list is someone saying that they are the author, idk if its true but its there

  • saber25

    I don’t know what it was, but i once heard that urine or rat pee or rattlesnake venom can cure wound disease like boils and other cut wounds. Good thing that you wouldn’t die by that. OOOOOOOOOk, jfrater, me again become impatient, when you post faces of death list? CURIOSITY OVERPOWERS ME!!!!!! *bored*

  • saber25

    Ok think this is one of jfrater’s uncommented lists. and someone named superbloop saying he created the cuteness list but i do not know if he is really the one. many can be frauds. Jamie, why aren’t you commenting?!?!?!

  • Jon K

    I agree with Ahmad, number 1 and 4.

  • Jon K

    I agree with Ahmad, number 1 and 4. The other poisonous list was interesting, but this one was quite boring.

  • @saber25 (51): Superbloop was correct and his/her name has been added to the “cute” list. I didn’t post on this list because I had no time to do anything yesterday as I had my first class of a course I am doing.

  • saber25

    Well yeah JFrater, thanks, that explains a lot. Hmmmmmm, when will you post the ten faces of death list? Please tell me if you are working on it…

  • imcrystalclear

    Tricia, (6) I agree, who in their right mind would say, “I think I’ll try using this poison to see if will work as a medicine.”

    I’m glad someone is doing it, but I’m glad I’m not the one.

    Great List!

  • GTT

    @JLo (23): Coumadin… I was a little surprised reading that entry that I didnt recognize the name considering my dad takes countless pills every day for his heart. Coumadin I recognize. :)

    Anyway, I firmly believe in the perfect equilibrium in Nature. Every “new” disease we see has a cure already available, we just have to find it. And that´s one of the sad things about losing so many different types of animals/plants… Who knows if one of those random species that went extinct in the Amazon could have cured AIDS…..

  • that one kid

    JFrater, you’ve got to warn us about pics of snakes, too. i have kept myself up all night a bunch of times because of pics of snakes on here.
    but dude, i loved this list. i was amazed that deadly night shade and rat poison can help people haha!

  • scientific

    Anyone familiar with toxicology will know that it is the dose that determines a poison. Everything can be poisonous given at sufficient quantities. Good list.

  • artisan54

    @jfrater (54): hey man allways a fun read. i am a random knowledge sponge so i love this site, been comin here for years. thanks for putting up with the complainers all the time. cant please everyone you know.

  • Globals

    all good things

  • katerinaelaena

    Who was the greek philosopher who died of hemlock poisoning? Socrates? I think so…

    Interesting list! I loved the Ergot thing…that was cool

  • Magnumto

    Great list – interesting.

  • Very interesting.

  • What about jellyfish?

  • nascentbenedictine

    Atropine is also used in eye exams to dilate teh pupils

  • How about the “Brompton Cocktail”. Created by Dr. Herbert Snow in 1896 at the Royal Brompton Hospital in London, England for which it is named for. It was a pain suppressant / killer used from the time of its creation up until the 1920’s. It was taken orally for very late stage patients who we’re terminally ill from cancer or Tuberculosis. It contained Morphine, Cocaine, Pure Ethyl Alcohol, Thorazine and Chloroform. A very small amount of Cherry syrup was also added to mask the bitter taste of this medicine. You can read all about it on the Wikipedia.

  • mamishka

    Great list! I learned about these beneficial “poisons” in college and was trying to find information on them again with little success. Then I found this list! Thank you so much for giving me exactly the information I was looking for!

  • smit

    nise list thank you and extended list

  • Refpypeshes


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