Mushroom poisoning refers to the severe and often deadly effects of various toxins that are found in certain types of mushrooms. The toxins initially cause severe abdominal cramping, vomiting, and watery diarrhea, and then lead toliver and kidney failure.
The highest reported incidences of mushroom poisoning occur in western Europe, where a popular pastime is amateur mushroom hunting. Since the 1970s, the United States has seen an increase in mushroom poisoning due to an increase inthe popularity of "natural" foods, the use of mushrooms as recreational hallucinogens, and an increasing awareness of the gourmet qualities of wild mushrooms.
About 90% of the deaths due to mushroom poisoning in the United States and western Europe result from eating Amanita phalloides. This mushroom is recognized by its metallic green cap (the color may vary from light yellow togreenish brown), white gills (located under the cap), white stem, and bulb-shaped structure at the base of the stem. A pure white variety of this speciesalso occurs. Poisoning results from ingestion of as few as one to three mushrooms. Higher death rates occur with children less than 10 years old and withthe elderly.
Poisonous mushrooms contain at least two different types of toxins, each of which can cause death if taken in large enough quantities. Some of the toxinsfound in poisonous mushrooms are among the most potent ever discovered. One group of poisons, known as amatoxins, blocks the production of DNA. This leadsto the death of many cells, especially those that reproduce frequently suchas in the liver, intestines, and kidney. Other mushroom poisons affect the proteins needed for muscle contraction, and therefore reduce the ability of muscles to function.
Symptoms of Amanita poisoning occur in different stages or phases. Abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting, and severe watery diarrhea occur anywherefrom 6-24 hours after eating the mushroom and last for about 24 hours. Theseintestinal symptoms can lead to dehydration and low blood pressure (hypotension).
A period of remission of symptoms that lasts 1-2 days occurs next. During this time, the patient feels better, but blood tests begin to show evidence of liver and kidney damage. Liver and kidney failure continue to develop and either lead to death within about a week or recovery within 2-3 weeks.
Other symptoms are due to either a decrease in blood clotting factors that leads to internal bleeding or reduced muscle function, with the development ofweakness and paralysis.
In most cases, the fact that the patient has recently eaten wild mushrooms isthe clue to the cause of symptoms. Moreover, the identification of any remaining mushrooms by a qualified mushroom specialist (mycologist) can be a key to diagnosis. When in doubt, the toxin known as alpha-amantin can be found inthe blood, urine, or stomach contents of an individual who has ingested poisonous Amanita mushrooms.
There is no specific antidote for mushroom poisoning. However, several advances in therapy have decreased the death rate over the last several years. Early replacement of lost body fluids has been a major factor in improving survival rates.
Therapy is aimed at decreasing the amount of toxin in the body. Initially, attempts are made to remove toxins from the upper gastrointestinal tract by inducing vomiting or by gastric lavage (stomach pumping). After that, continuousaspiration of the upper portion of the small intestine through a nasogastrictube is done, and oral charcoal (every four hours for 48 hours) is given toprevent absorption of toxin. These measures work best if started within six hours of ingestion.
In the United States, early removal of mushroom poison by way of an artificial kidney machine (dialysis) has become part of the treatment program. This iscombined with the correction of any imbalances of salts such as sodium or potassium (electrolytes) dissolved in the blood. An enzyme called thioctic acidand corticosteroids also appear to be beneficial, as well as high doses of penicillin. In Europe, a chemical taken from the milk thistle plant, Silybum marianum , is also part of treatment.
When liver failure develops, liver transplantation may be the only treatmentoption. Although the mortality rate has decreased with improved and rapid treatment, according to some medical reports death still occurs in 20-30% of cases, with a higher mortality rate in children.
The most important factor in preventing mushroom poisoning is to avoid eatingwild mushrooms. For anyone not expert in mushroom identification, there aregenerally no easily recognizable differences between nonpoisonous and poisonous mushrooms. Some edible European mushrooms look very similar to poisonous mushrooms found in the United States, putting European immigrant mushroom hunters at special risk. Most mushroom poisons are not destroyed or deactivated by cooking, canning, freezing, drying, or other means of food preparation.