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Picking mushrooms can go horribly wrong. Here’s what can happen, according to a toxicologist


Are mushroom season in many parts of Australia. Between now and about June, the cooler and wetter weather is the perfect conditions for mushrooms to grow in the wild. In Tasmania and parts of Victoria, mushrooms can grow all year round.

At the New South Wales Poisons Information Centre, where I’m medical director, we get 300-500 calls a year about mushrooms. Most are from people who are concerned about what they or others have eaten. Others are from health professionals seeking advice on how to treat poisonings.

Here’s what happens when you eat a poisonous mushroom, and when you do, it really helps health professionals know what to do next.

Read more: The ancient, intimate relationship between trees and fungi, from fairy mushrooms to technicolor mushrooms

A rich history … but can make you sick

Mushroom foraging, or mushroom hunting, is popular in many parts of the world. It is associated with local cultures, a social activity with family and friends, or to find food. Thus, mushroom foraging can have deep emotional or cultural ties.

The success of a foraging expedition depends on finding mushrooms and being able to distinguish the edible from the poisonous varieties. That’s not always easy and even experienced collectors can make mistakes.

Poisonous mushrooms can resemble edible mushrooms and can look different depending on where they grow, including on other continents. Mushroom identification apps don’t seem to be accurate enough in Australia. It’s also not clear how useful mushroom identification books are in helping people tell the edible from the poisonous.

Read more: The glowing ghost mushroom looks like it came from an underworld of fungi

Different types of mushroom pickers

People can be at risk for mushroom poisoning for a variety of reasons.

1. Young and sometimes older people

A common risk group are younger people (usually toddlers, as they explore the world around them) and sometimes older people (usually people with cognitive problems, such as dementia). These people tend to forage and eat mushrooms outdoors when partially supervised.

This group tends to eat smaller amounts, which is usually low risk, and contact poison information centers early. But assessing the toxicity of the mushrooms they’ve eaten can be difficult when the only information we have is chewed mushroom remains from an uncertain source.

2. Collectors

The other risk category is people who eat larger amounts of mushrooms, usually as part of a foraging group, and develop symptoms. These people contact the poison information center some time after eating the mushrooms.

Samples of uncooked mushrooms are often not available. And we don’t always know if their symptoms are related to mushrooms or something else.

Most mushroom poisonings are mild. But sometimes this group develops serious poisoning that requires medical care, including hospitalization, including those who forage food or hallucinogenic mushrooms.

Read more: Poisonous poppy seeds are sending people to the hospital. 3 experts explain what’s behind the latest food crisis

What happens in the body?

The yellow dye can cause nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhea.

The most common symptoms are nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhea. We don’t always know how mushrooms cause these effects. But this is likely due to chemicals that directly irritate or kill cells in the gut.

We expect these symptoms after eating mushrooms such as the yellow dye or Agaricus xanthodermusfound in many parts of Australia, and the green-spurred parasol or Chlorophyllum molybditesmainly found in tropical and subtropical regions.

Chlorophyllum molybdites or parasol with green spores
The green spored parasol can also cause intestinal complaints.

The mushroom that appears in the Smurfs, Amanita muscaria, can cause intestinal complaints. It’s possible also cause sedation (which can be severe) and tiredness, or agitation, confusion and changes in perception. This is because it contains chemicals such as ibotenic acid and muscimol that can stimulate or inhibit different parts of the brain. This mushroom is found in subtropical and transient climates in Australia.

Fly agaric or Amanita muscaria
The mushroom Amanita muscaria can you sedate.

Toxic effects of other mushrooms include drowsiness, lethargy, seizures, low blood pressure, hallucinations and agitation. Some mushrooms can interact with alcohol a few days after eating the mushroom, causing flushing, nausea, vomiting and low blood pressure.

Fortunately, people usually recover from these types of symptoms because their bodies naturally eliminate the toxins.

But Australia also has poisonous mushrooms can killor permanently cause liver or kidney failure. That’s because they contain toxins that kill liver, kidney and other cells in essential organs of the body that the body cannot repair.

Amanita phalloides or death cap mushroom
Eating a skull mushroom can cause liver failure or can be fatal.

An example is the death cap fungus (Amanita phalloides), which occurs in Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory.

in Tasmania, Cortinarius eartoxicus causes kidney failure need dialysis. Similar varieties can also be inVictoria but have yet to be formally identified.

Read more: What’s in your porcini mushroom package? You might find a new species… or three

What can you say to your practitioner?

Knowing which mushrooms people have eaten helps us predict the likely course of events and choose the best treatment.

But people who call us for advice rarely have fresh samples or photos with which to identify the mushroom. Humans can also eat several kinds of mushrooms at once, which can complicate your assessment.

Our knowledge of growing poisonous mushrooms in Australia is also incomplete. In some cases we rely on information from abroad, but we are not sure how this applies to Australia or to the region where the mushroom consumed was picked.

Read more: The peculiar history of thorn apple, the hallucinogenic weed that ended up in supermarket spinach

What should I do if I am concerned?

If you think you have eaten a poisonous wild mushroom, contact a poison information center as soon as possible (details below). Health professionals can provide advice regarding your exposure, including the location of the exposure, the amount eaten, and your symptoms.

Some people may be advised to watch and wait at home, but others need to go to the hospital immediately. This allows for treatments that can reduce the amount absorbed and the severity of the poisoning.

We can prevent this

The safest way to get mushrooms is from a reputable supermarket, grocer or market.

But if you choose to look for wild mushrooms, at least seek advice from a relevant book or an experienced person, keep a sample of the mushroom, and take lots of photos. Photos should include where they grow and different angles of the mushroom. This includes the top, stem, bottom, and base (underground) parts. This can help us identify the mushroom if you or someone else develops symptoms.

If this article raises health concerns for you or someone you know about consuming mushrooms, call the Information center for poisons anywhere in Australia on 131 126. This evidence-based advice is available 24 hours a day. For life-threatening complaints, call 000.

The author of what'snew2day.com is dedicated to keeping you up-to-date on the latest news and information.

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