They’re found on nearly every continent, you hear them calling at night, and you might even see one hanging around in your yard…what are they? Toads!! An incredibly common amphibian, toads are spotted everywhere in the world, except for Antarctica.
Throughout our history, we’ve developed folklore and tales about toads and some people even choose to keep them as pets. We’ve known them for centuries, and yet, there is a lot to wonder about this mysterious little creature.
Here’s the real question, are toads poisonous to humans? Yes, they are. But, it’s important to discuss the instances where we must be cautious and the degree to which toads are toxic to humans.
This article will do just that. Follow and hop along as we discuss how toads are poisonous to humankind and what danger this might insinuate. We’ll deep dive into the lore surround toads: the animal, the myth, and the legend.
Toads: The Animal
Toads and humans have been living in symbiosis for centuries. Gardeners enjoy them living near their patches, as they eat harmful bugs and are gentle neighbors. Kids like to search for them and watch them hop around.
But just like many animals, they harbor skills of self-defense. One such skill is the ability to secrete a toxin from the glands found atop their heads. All toads are poisonous. The literal definition of a toad, according to Oxford Languages is:
“A tailless amphibian with a short stout body and short legs, typically having dry warty skin that can exude poison”
This poison delivery isn’t a continuous act, but instead performed when the toad feels threatened and it can happen instantaneously. Toads are very quick to frighten, even if handled gently. And it’s not just the poison you have to worry about, toads also pee when they’re scared.
What is the toxin secreted by toads?
The toxin secreted by toads is a bufotoxin, a poisonous steroid. It is a milky goo originating from a toad’s parotid glands on top of its head. This substance is bitter tasting, produces nausea, and can ultimately lead to heart failure, depending on the dosage of exposure or size of the victim.
It is potent enough to kill small animals, even dogs. For humans, the main effect is irritation of the eyes and mucous membranes when physical contact is the mode of transference. However, reactions can vary greatly.
Mucous membranes are the areas of your body that separate the internal body from the external world. Examples include:
- Eyes Mouth
- Nasal passages
- Trachea and respiratory tract
- Digestive tract
Also incredibly susceptible to toad poison would be an open wound. This allows the fast-acting toxin to directly enter the body and begin its wicked work.
There are several components to the toxin, which are described in the table below:
|Bufotoxin Component||Effect when ingested|
|Bufagin||Effects the heart by stimulating the cardiac muscles and causing ventricular fibrillation, an abnormal heart rhythm.|
|Bufotenine||A halucinogen. Can cause illusions, delusions, paranoia, and altered thinking.|
|Serotonin||Vasoconstricter. Can cause tremors and seizures and eventually lead to death.|
The composition of sub-compounds in each toad’s unique bufotoxin mix can vary greatly.
What toads are most poisonous?
Due to the variance in toxicity among toads, there are naturally some more dangerous species. In North America, the most precarious toads are the Cane Toad and the Colorado River Toad. See the below chart for descriptions of these two pernicious amphibians.
Body: Tan or Red/Brown , Dark spots on back. Bony ridges over the eyes.
|Cane Toad||Glands: large and triangular, along the shoulders.|
Body. Leathery olive/brown skin
|Florida, Hawaii, Texas|
|Colorado River Toad||Glands: Large glands behind the eyes and on the backs of limbs.||South Western USA and Northern Mexico|
Why does toad poisoning affect animals more than humans?
The poison is much more fatal to animals because their physical interaction with toads includes mouthing the amphibian. Therefore, the toxin is delivered in large amounts directly into the body of the animal. Humans typically don’t mouth toads, so the effects of the toxin are comparatively mild.
If a person were to ingest a toad, they would likely suffer a similar intensity of symptoms, up to the severity of even death. Cases of cardiotoxicity in humans have been documented due to toad poisoning. It’s also common for small children to handle and try to lick a toad, not understanding the danger or general icky-ness of the act. In these instances, poisoning will be more severe.
How do toads store their toxin?
The bufotoxin synthesized by toads is stored in their skin and the main depository is their pair of parotid glands that sit on top of their head behind their eyes. They begin to produce the toxin even when they are tadpoles!
So, contact with a toad, even if it isn’t near their head, will still expose you to their toxin just from touching their skin.
Do toads carry any bacteria?
Aside from bufotoxin, other potentially hazardous elements can be encountered after contact with toads. The chart below identifies some common bacteria that can be passed by toads and the effects that it can have on humans.
|Bacteria||Effect on humans|
|Salmonella||Severe diarrhea, cramps, fever, and Vomiting.|
|Aeromonas||Diarrhea or blood infections|
|Mycobacteriosis||A skin infection that can spread throughout the body|
The symptoms of those bacterial infections don’t sound fun for anyone, but the populations most at risk include the following persons:
- Young children, especially infants
The groups above are at a higher risk of suffering to a much greater degree, and could even experience death as a result.
Toads: The Myth
There are many fables of toads, much of these being hollow parables. Yet, some might hold a nugget of truth that can help us better understand the creatures and influence our interaction with them.
Let’s highlight some common tales told and label whether they ring true or false:
- Toads give you warts: False. Warts are exclusively found in humans. This is one thing we don’t have to worry about catching from frogs and toads.
- Kiss a toad to turn him into a Prince: False. But it might turn you into someone that has salmonella.
- Toads have jewels in their heads: False. Though Shakespeare’s As You Like It play might say otherwise. A toad’s head doesn’t contain any jewels, aside from those stately bufotoxin glands!
There has been a lot of fantastical speculation about toads throughout history. Unfortunately, toads have gotten a pretty bad rap. Along with the standard definition of a toad described at the beginning of this article, the secondary meaning is “a contemptible or detestable person.”
Not only do toads have to deal with our boorish fables and our harsh judgment, but also must they endure our continual destruction of their habitats.
Toads: The Legend
Beyond the potential harm from physical handling, humans pose a persistent threat to toads by encroaching on their environment and causing habitat degradation. Humans have also introduced invasive predator species into regions and subsequently caused population instability.
Yes, toads are potentially poisonous to humans. The range of effects after handling a toad can range from completely unaffected to toxicity and death, depending on the level of exposure. Toads deliver this sticky toxin through their incredibly permeable skin.
This permeability allows them to breathe through their skin to supplement their lung respiration. It also leaves them especially susceptible to environmental pollutants.
As it turns out, those environmental pollutants can be a chemical influence for the toad to produce their toxin in more volume. A study completed in 2019 observing the toxin levels found in toads discovered that creatures living in urban and agricultural areas, compared to those in a natural habitat, had larger parotid glands and more potent poison.
This increase in toxicity is theorized to be due to several factors, to include:
- Increased environmental pollution
- More predators in urban and agricultural areas
- Higher stress levels from urbane environments
Whatever the case may be, the findings are clear. Toads that live in these areas have a significantly higher amount and toxicity level of poison. So, if you come across a city-dwelling toad or live out in farmland, be extra cautious if handling these creatures.
Nature knows how to serve up a dose of karma. As humans wreck the land, we not only have to deal with the climate consequences but apparently more toxic toads, too!
How to handle a toad
Perhaps you find a lonesome salientian in the middle of the road and want to protect him from the danger of traffic. Or, your dog has gotten ahold of a toad and you need to remove it from his mouth. Maybe you even want to keep a toad as a pet.
Refer to the below-handling guidelines when you have to touch a toad.
Proper toad handling technique:
- Wash your hands before picking up the animal
- Wear gloves if you have them
- Use a net, paper plate, or plastic bowl if you have it. If not, continue with the instructions for physical handling.
- Approach the toad from behind
- Gently place your thumb on the back of the toad, while using your fingers to scoop her up by the torso
Good Samaritan or a budding zookeeper, you’ve just handled a toad and now you’re concerned you have been exposed to its poison.
Follow these steps:
- Avoid touching anything, especially your eyes and face
- Immediately wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water
- Wash anything that came in contact with the toad, like a net or bowl used to pick him up.
As you can see, the most important thing to do after contact with a toad is to clean. Otherwise, you risk transferring the toxin from your hands to your sensitive mucous membranes, like your eyes and mouth.
How to avoid toad poisoning
Number one: avoid toads. If that’s not possible for you, then be sure to practice good hygiene and cleaning procedures after you come into contact with a toad. And above all, never try to lick or eat one!
The following guidelines are helpful to avoid toad-poisoning:
- Limit interactions with toads, and always wash hands thoroughly after handling
- Do not touch your face after handling toads
- Families with children under 5 years should not keep toads as pets
- Do not place toads in bathtubs or sinks
Do know that a toad isn’t a vile little beast that goes out hunting for humans to harm. The poison they dish out is used purely for self-defense. Only when a toad feels threatened or afraid, will they ooze their bufotoxin protection. The goal in nature is to survive, and that’s all they’re trying to do.
Proper toad etiquette
Always practice proper toad etiquette when you come across one in the wild. Give it space and don’t pick it up. If you must handle it, do so with extreme care. A toad squeezed too hard or leaping from the height of your hands can seriously injure the creature.
Despite their malicious poison, toads shouldn’t be feared! They are gentle and helpful creatures that eat annoying bugs and are interesting to spot and watch. But, like all wild animals, they’re best left alone. There’s no need to interact with a toad in nature, and any sort would likely cause the toad distress.
So, be a friend to nature and her kin (remember, you’re part of nature too) and observe toads from a respectful distance and bid your adieu from afar.
Toads can cause poisoning in humans, meanwhile, humans are destroying the creature’s habitat. In a twist of fate, toads found in polluted environments are equipped with higher levels of more toxic poison.
You’d think that we’d be no good for one another, but when we regard toads with respect and care, we can continue the rewarding relationship we’ve held with them throughout history. Let’s consider them a friend of humans and let them be.