Foraging? Mushroom Poisonings on the Rise
November 08, 2023
Foraging is the practice of collecting food from nature and it has grown in popularity since the pandemic. Recently, hospitals in some parts of the country have seen an uptick in poisonings from toxic mushrooms picked from nature.
Which Mushrooms Are Poisonous?
Over 2,000 types of wild mushrooms grow in woodlands and grassy areas. Some are poisonous, while others are safe and delicious to eat.
Toxic mushrooms are difficult to distinguish from the edible ones, especially to the untrained eye. The most common type of toxic mushrooms belong to the Amanita genus. Two types in particular - the “destroying angel” and the “death cap” mushroom – contain toxic compounds called amatoxins, which damage liver cells and can be fatal if not treated.
Why the Uptick This Year?
All types of mushrooms tend to thrive in humid weather. Many types of toxic mushrooms can be plentiful, especially in September and October following a summer marked by high levels of humidity and rain. “Cases of mushroom poisonings typically begin around the first week of October and then stop by Halloween,” says Dr. Gholam.
This summer, many parts of the country saw close to double the amount of rain they typically get. Dr. Gholam says the wet weather almost certainly contributed to the spike in mushroom poisonings seen this year.
Who’s at Risk for Mushroom Poisoning?
According to Dr. Gholam, the majority of mushroom poisoning cases he sees are in people who were foraging. Many people use mobile apps or AI technology to identify mushrooms and other plant species that are safe to eat. Dr. Gholam strongly cautions against this. He recently treated a man who used a plant identification app to identify a mushroom from his yard and became ill after eating it. Fortunately, Dr. Gholam was able to prescribe a drug called Silibinin and save the man’s life, but the drug isn’t widely available or FDA approved.
Young children are also at risk for mushroom poisoning, as they may pick and eat toxic mushrooms in the yard, not knowing any better. Pets are at risk as well, especially dogs. For all of these reasons, it’s important to clear any toxic mushrooms from your yard.
Signs and Symptoms of Mushroom Poisoning
Symptoms vary based on the type of mushroom and may include:
- Stomach cramps
- Diarrhea (sometimes bloody)
Symptoms usually appear within 20 minutes to 4 hours of eating the mushrooms and resolve after the toxins have been expelled from the body. Symptoms that start within 2 hours of eating the mushroom are usually less dangerous than those that develop later (after 6 hours). However, always call a doctor immediately if you suspect that you or someone else has mushroom poisoning, as severe cases may require medical treatment and even hospitalization.
With Amanita mushroom poisoning, symptoms typically appear 6 to 24 hours after consuming the mushroom, at which point the body has absorbed the toxins. Following an initial phase of digestive symptoms, the patient may appear to get better after two or three days. Symptoms of liver and kidney damage will begin 3 to 6 days after the mushrooms were eaten. These symptoms can include jaundice, seizures, excessive bleeding, low blood sugar and coma, potentially fatal.
According to Dr. Gholam, approximately 30% of people who consume lethal Amanita mushrooms either die or require a life-saving liver transplant.
Be on the Safe Side
Fortunately, you don’t need to worry about mistakenly purchasing toxic mushrooms at the grocery store. Mushroom poisonings are largely restricted to amateur foragers and backyard gardeners.
Unless you’re an expert, Dr. Gholam urges people not to eat wild mushrooms. He says the risk to your health is too great to rely on tools like mushroom identification apps and amateur advice found on social media and elsewhere on the internet.
"If you do all your mushroom foraging at the grocery store, you’ll never have to worry about this problem.”