Life saving steps to reverse poisonous-mushroom ingestion

Forest mushrooms might look yummy, but some can kill. Here’s what to do if a Scout in your troop or crew eats one.

Situation:

Survive This MushroomOn a weekend campout in the Pacific Northwest, you groggily arrive at the Bear patrol’s table for a hot breakfast. A young Scout on morning duty offers you a fluffy omelet filled with forest mushrooms—just picked! Recoiling in alarm, you notice his empty plate: He’s already eaten. What should you do?

Solution:

First, assume the worst.

Before anyone else is potentially poisoned, throw the omelets into the fire—even if they come with toast and a side of home fries (throw those in, too). Next, place a sample of each type of mushroom in a plastic bag and scatter or bury the rest. Third, locate the nearest hospital that has an emergency room—and get very good directions.

There is a wide range of factors to consider when dealing with accidental forest mushroom ingestion. Not only are many varieties of poisonous mushrooms virtually indistinguishable from their benign counterparts, but the toxins within them vary widely—as do their effects and the delay before the onset of symptoms.

Toxins range from those that attack the gastrointestinal tract and the renal system (kidneys) to those that affect the central nervous and immune systems. A single poisonous mushroom species may have only one toxin, or it may have several. This variability often complicates treatment. This is also why it’s critical for emergency personnel to identify the type(s) ingested—hence the importance of preserving samples. Children and the elderly are the most vulnerable to severe injury and death from toxic mushroom ingestion.

The affected Scout should be taken to a hospital immediately. Depending on the type of mushroom eaten, the onset of symptoms might not occur for as many as 24 hours following ingestion. On the way to get help, write down the following information: the near-precise time the mushrooms were eaten, all types ingested, and the amount of each. This is important if the toxins from one variety mask the symptoms of another.

Because the nearest hospital might not be equipped to accurately identify the mushrooms, telemedicine or the Internet may be used for remote diagnosis. You can assist medical personnel by taking careful photos of each type of mushroom ingested, which could be sent to another facility for identification. Note that the mushrooms should be kept in a zip-top bag and not handled, since inhalation of spores also can be dangerous.

If you find that the nearest emergency room is many hours away, research suggests that the administration of activated charcoal can delay or limit the absorption of most toxins, and it’s often used for victims of mushroom poisoning, regardless of when the mushrooms were eaten. Activated charcoal sold at retail stores typically comes in capsule or liquid form. Use it only as a last resort and if you can’t reach a hospital quickly. If possible, contact a poison-control center by phone before administering.

If you’re deep in the backcountry, the BSA Fieldbook (No. 33104) advises Scouts who’ve ingested poisonous plants to induce vomiting. Save the vomit in a plastic bag to help identify the mushroom. Seek immediate medical attention.

It sounds gross, but the key to treating mushroom consumption is identification. Taking these steps to treat consumption of mushrooms can be the difference between life and death.

JOSH PIVEN is co-author of the Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook series. Find him online at facebook.com/jpiven.

9 thoughts on “Life saving steps to reverse poisonous-mushroom ingestion

    • Nicholas Evans (author of The Horse Whisperer), his wife, brother and sister-in-law
      had a lovely meal of mushrooms they picked. Three of the four required kidney transplant. KNOW, don’t assume, that any mushroom is edible.

  1. Where to start? First of all if mushroom poisoning is suspected your first call should be to a Poison Center. The universal number is 1-800-222-1222. Your call will then be routed to the PC that serves your telephone area code. Most PCs have a mycologist on call to help with such situations. It is not a good idea for the uninitiated to try to use the internet for identification and advice in the case of mushroom poisonings. You cannot become an expert in 5 minutes.
    Second: Never use plastic bags for the mushroom specimens (except for stomach contents). Plastic makes them deteriorate more quickly. There is no danger from spores in the minuscule amount that would be released in handling the specimens. And briefly handling the specimens is not dangerous. They have to be eaten to cause poisoning.
    While some poisonous mushrooms contain more than one toxin, we know what toxin or toxins are present in various species. It’s not a mystery or a guessing game.
    The most important information to get across BEFORE going into the woods is that NO fungi or green plants should be eaten without proper identification.
    Incidentally, fungi have their own kingdom, and are much more closely related to animals than to plants.
    MycoPC

    • As a firefighter, paramedic, hazardous materials specialist and asst. scoutmaster, I would not waste the phone call to poison control. Even when you know exactly what you have and give them specifics, they tend to not be of much help. If you call them with “it looks like, or it might be”, they will be of no help at all. Poison control is meant for known chemical ingestion or exposure. They will be of little help with wilderness ingestions. A plastic bag will increase degredation and possibly promote mold growth. However, for short term use to get out of the woods, this is not a concern. Plus, you have to do what you can with what you have in that situation. A paper bag in the woods is a worthless piece of gear.

  2. Mushroom identification might work for Les Stroud or Bear Grils, but well beyond the skillset for most. One of our troop parents is a managing RN for a local hospital. He told our Scouts that one of the hospital employees grew up hunting mushrooms in the Philippines. He harvested mushrooms growing around the hospital during a break one day and was beyond help before they could get him into the hospital building. Our troop dad watched his friend die, and there was not a thing they could do to help him. Mushroom identification is too tricky for a backpacking trip with Scouts.

  3. Sorry to be so late in replying, but I just came across the comment by Jason Brooks. I’m sorry he has had such unfortunate experiences with poison centers. If he had called Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center (Colorado, Montana, Nevada, and Hawaii) an expert on the toxic fungus, plant, animal, etc. would have been consulted for accurate information. Unfortunately, funding has been cut for PCs to the point where smaller ones have had to close down or greatly reduce their services.
    The comments critical of advice on handling specimens were unnecessary.

  4. I posted a comment about one hour ago regarding Jason Brooks’ comments about poison centers. I don’t see it now. Just as I posted it I received a call from the Detroit, Mich. PC requesting help with a mushroom case there. I have handled that case – should be no problem – but I am concerned about JB’s attitude. As I pointed out before, PCs budgets were reduced last year to the point where many had to close. Your call to a PC (1-800-222-1222) is routed to the PC that serves the calling party’s area code. I think most PCs have experts they can call for information about almost any toxic substance. I have handled mushroom calls for PCs in several states for 25-30 years.

  5. Returning to this topic–if people are able to call someone, I assume they have a cell phone with access. Photos are very helpful. Our poison center works closely with mycologists, using photographs and having them communicate directly with the caller. If someone truly is experienced and trained as an emergency provider, they are aware that accessing expert help in a timely manner can save lives (and lawsuits). It is vital to have not only opinions, but informed opinions.

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