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What is an Antidote?

By Alan Rankin
Updated Feb 04, 2024
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An antidote is a chemical that will counteract the effects of a poison. If administered soon enough and in sufficient quantities, an antidote can save the life of a human or animal that has been poisoned. Antivenom, or antivenin, is a kind of antidote for the venom resulting from the bite or sting of a poisonous creature. While many poisons have a known antidote, some are expensive and difficult to produce. If someone is known or suspected to have been poisoned, a poison control center will be able to determine the best course of action.

Most poisons and venoms are spread rapidly through the body by the bloodstream, so prompt medical attention is essential for the effectiveness of an antidote. Activated charcoal is used as the antidote for a wide range of poisoning cases. Ingested by the patient, it absorbs some poisons and prevents them from passing into the bloodstream. Ethanol, insulin, and sodium bicarbonate, or baking soda, are other well-known substances that serve as antidotes for some poisons.

Some antidotes, particularly antivenoms, are created by using the body’s natural healing ability. In many creatures, the bloodstream produces antibodies in the presence of infection, whether that infection is due to disease microbes or another organic substance. The antibodies neutralize the foreign body and protect the bloodstream against further infection by the same substance, a process called immunization. By injecting test animals with small, safe amounts of venom, scientists can harvest the resulting antibodies and use them to create antivenom. This substance can be processed for use in other victims of poisonous bites and stings.

Unfortunately, antivenoms are costly to produce, and demand is low. The economics of the pharmaceutical industry mean they are often not available in impoverished countries. Scientists have had some success in creating universal antivenoms by studying the DNA of venomous creatures. It is also possible to build up immunity to venoms and other poisons by regularly ingesting small quantities of the poison. This process is called mithridatism.

According to legend, the ancient Anatolian King Mithridates had a universal antidote created so that he could not be assassinated by poison. It contained small quantities of every known poison and antidote, and he ingested it daily to create artificial immunity. Ironically, when Rome took his capital, Mithridates tried to commit suicide by poison, but failed because of the immunity. Mithridatism plays a key role in many other legends and in famous stories such as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Princess Bride.

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