It’s prime mushroom hunting time in much of the United States, but foragers need to have a keen eye or an expert opinion to avoid serious consequences.

A recent mushroom poisoning case in Massachusetts has illustrated again how people who forage mushrooms can find themselves carrying home a basket of toxins, especially if they are not well-versed in local species.

Mushroom poisoning can range from an upset stomach to death. 

Common symptoms of the poisoning include vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, weakness or lethargy. Illness and death can come quickly in some instances.

A death cap mushroom foraged in a backyard in Amherst. Photo courtesy of UMass Memorial Health

A 63-year-old mother and her 27-year-old son showed up at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, MA, looking ill and with signs of liver and kidney damage after consuming wild mushrooms picked in their friend’s Amherst, MA, backyard. The mother and son said the symptoms hit within hours of consuming what was later identified as a death cap mushroom.

Translating for his mother, the son said the mushrooms reminded his mother of the mushrooms she would eat in Malaysia.

With the help of an experimental drug flown in from Philadelphia, the two were stabilized, though the mother had to have a liver transplant.

A study published in the journal Mycologia,  took the compiled U.S. mushroom exposures as reported by the National Poison Data System (NPDS) from 1999 to 2016 and analyzed the data from those 28 years. 133, 700 cases, 7,428 a year, of mushroom exposure, mostly by ingestion, were reported. Approximately 704, 39 a year, of the exposures resulted in major harm. Fifty-two fatalities were reported during the 16-year period, mostly from cyclopeptide-producing mushrooms ingested by older adults unintentionally. The study found that the misidentification of edible mushroom species appears to be the most common cause.

While many edible mushroom species grow wild all across the U.S., stories like this show there is risk involved because of toxic and poisonous species These toxic species include lookalikes that can cause serious illness or even death when eaten. This is why it is important that a certified mushroom expert properly identify the mushrooms.

If you’re interested in mushroom foraging and how to do it safely, contact your local mushroom foraging clubs, certification programs, university extension programs, or your State’s Department of Agriculture.

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