While toxins and toxoids are similar in structure, their purposes could not be more at odds. While nature produces toxins to harm or kill an unwanted organism, a toxoid is a synthetic compound created to give animals and people a long-term resistance to toxins. Scientists create toxoids from the original toxin itself, the same way they create flu vaccines from neutered parts of the flu virus.
Toxins are chemical compounds produced naturally by many different plants and animals across the earth for both defensive and offensive purposes. Any naturally produced poison is considered a toxin. These chemicals in some way disrupt the processes an organism needs to survive. One toxin might interfere with the nervous system, while another might inhibit the absorption of nutrients by the digestive system. Toxins are generally made of small molecules, peptides or proteins.
Toxins are by nature dangerous to other organisms, but their effects vary considerably. Most work by acting on enzymes and cellular receptors within tissues, and their danger depends not only on their composition but on the organism that ingests or absorbs the toxin. Some toxins are only annoying in small amounts, causing pain or discomfort, while other toxins are immediately deadly in only small amounts. In large amounts all toxins can be deadly.
Scientists have developed several means of fighting toxins, including toxoids. A toxoid was once a toxin, but has been fundamentally changed by a chemical reaction. Usually heat is applied to the toxin, causing it to lose its potent affects. The compound itself is still intact, but the poisonous qualities are removed or rendered ineffective. The term toxoid can apply to many altered toxins as well as more pathogen-oriented substances.
A toxoid is administered to you in order to give you an immunity to a specific type of toxin. Since the toxoid is similar to the toxin it was made from, the immune system sees it as a threat and attacks it the same way it would the toxin itself. By attacking and removing the toxoid, the immune system learns valuable information about fighting proteins or molecules with the same structure. After a few weeks, the immune system has learned enough to be able to quickly respond to the real toxin, giving the body an immunity to it. This typically only works with less-powerful and slow-acting toxins or pathogens.
Toxoids are long term, preventive substances and take time to produce results. If a human or animal is poisoned by a toxin, there is not enough time for a toxoid to be effective. For this reason, scientists also develop anti-toxins, or substances designed specifically to immediately neutralize the effects of a particular kind of toxin. Anti-toxins are used in emergencies.
- Photo Credit "Needle Exchange" is Copyrighted by Flickr user: Todd Huffman (Todd Huffman) under the Creative Commons Attribution license.
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