A Few Things to Consider Before Eating Wild Mushrooms

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After a spate of recent poisonings, how to keep your inner forager in check

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Lee Cannon/Flickr

Last Friday, two elderly nursing home residents in California died after eating soup made with wild mushrooms. 

Just a few weeks before that, an entire Connecticut family was almost knocked out by a dish of wild mushrooms, onions, garlic, and green chili peppers. They were saved only by the timely administration of charcoal and an experimental drug. 

What makes these recent cases particularly tragic is that they were prompted by the very best intentions: someone wanting to prepare a special meal for someone else. Unfortunately, good intentions can't compensate for a lack of fungi awareness.

Of the over 10,000 species of mushrooms, only about 50 to 100 are toxic. About 6,000 Americans each year end up eating them. Over half of those cases involve unsupervised small children. So if you're considering treating that special person in your life to a wild mushroom-based dish, take the following into consideration:

- Over 90 percent of deaths, including these most recent ones, are caused by amatoxins. Take a moment to reflect on the four stages of Amanitin poisoning, courtesy of the North American Mycological Association:

  • Stage 1: A latency period of 6 to 24 hours after ingestion, in which the toxins are actively destroying the victim's kidneys and liver, but the victim experiences no discomfort.
  • Stage 2: A period of about 24 hours characterized by violent vomiting, bloody diarrhea, and severe abdominal cramps.
  • Stage 3: A period of 24 hours during which the victim appears to recover (if hospitalized, the patient is sometimes released!)
  • Stage 4: Relapse, during which kidney and liver failure often occurs, leading to death. Patients may also "bleed out" and die due to the destruction of clotting factors in the blood. There may be more than one relapse.

Your chance of surviving all this is about 50/50.

- Internet research does not make you an expert. Mycologists who study these things have gone through a lot of training to learn which mushrooms are and aren't good to eat. And even they can't always identify mushrooms by sight -- they often have to take spore prints and look at them under a microscope before they can be sure.

- You might not live near one of the 50 or so hospitals that has permission to give you the antidote. Silibinin, which blocks toxins from reaching the liver, has yet to be approved by the FDA, and is only available through clinical trials. Liver specialist Pierre Gholam told ABC News that he's had 14 patients come from up to 150 miles away so that their lives could be saved at his hospital, University Hospitals in Cleveland, which is authorized to administer the drug.

Silibinin is also what saved one the patients in Connecticut, but only after the hospital board made a special decision to allow her to be treated with it once her liver started shutting down.

Alternatively, make sure poison control is programmed into your speed dial: 1-800-222-1222

- The mushrooms believed to be responsible for these recent poisonings are popularly known as "Destroying Angel" and "Death Cap." Think about just how poisonous they have to be to earn one of those nicknames -- as opposed to our familiar grocery "button" (as in, "cute as a") or "baby bella."

- If you really want to be self-sufficient, there are plenty of grow-your-own mushroom kits out there. For a small investment, you can not only brag to the people you're cooking for that you picked them yourself, without any risk of accidentally killing them.

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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