Experts from Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in the US have warned that the growing popularity of foraging for mushrooms in the wild may lead to increased hospitalizations and serious illness as a result of poisoning from the fungi.

According to the experts, poison control centers nationwide answer around 6,000 calls nationwide from people who have consumed poisonous mushrooms. Around 2,500 of these cases are treated in health care facilities, while more than 500 cases lead to serious illness.

Bruce Ruck, director of drug information and professional education for New Jersey Poison Control at Rutgers, notes that mushroom foraging is growing in mainstream popularity, possibly as a result of the “locovore movement,” which promotes eating foods that are locally sourced.

But he adds that since many people do not have the knowledge to differentiate between edible and poisonous mushrooms, this is causing many people to suffer serious illness following consumption.

“Eating even a few bites of certain mushrooms can cause severe illness. Unless you are a mycologist, it is difficult to tell the difference between a toxic and non-toxic mushroom,” says Ruck.

Symptoms of mushroom poisoning can occur as little as 20 minutes after consumption, although some varieties can take up to 12 hours to trigger symptoms. These include stomach cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, and in more serious cases, liver and kidney damage, coma and even death.

Ruck adds that in recent years there have been many animal and human deaths reported as a result of eating poisonous mushrooms.

He points to a mother from Mercer County who picked a lethal poisonous mushroom from the Amanita genus and used it in a stew, serving it to her family. The mother died as a result, while her family fell ill.

Jack O Lantern mushroomsShare on Pinterest
Experts say that many poisonous mushrooms, such as the Jack-O’Lantern (pictured) can be mistaken for edible mushrooms.

Ruck notes that the majority of cases of mushroom poisonings come from immigrants who have become accustomed to foraging in their home environments, but who are unaware of the differences in mushrooms that grow in the US.

“Appearances can be deceiving,” he says. “Mushrooms growing in New Jersey may look like edible varieties from other parts of the country or world, but are actually toxic. Also, poisonous and non-poisonous mushrooms can grow side by side.”

There are over 5,000 species of mushrooms that grow in the US; around 100 are poisonous, and a dozen are classed as lethal.

Mushrooms from the Amanita genus are reported to cause the highest deaths, more specifically, the Death Caps, Destroying Angels and Fool’s Mushrooms.

James White, a professor at Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, says these mushrooms can easily be mistaken as those from the edible variety, noting that many toxic mushrooms have poisonous look-alikes.

“For example, poisonous false morels can be mistaken for highly sought-after edible morels, and Jack-O’Lantern mushrooms may resemble chanterelles,” he says.

“In addition, people have varying degrees of sensitivities with mushrooms. What might be fine for one person to consume might make another sick.”

Ruck says the best rule to go by in order to avoid consuming poisonous mushrooms is, “if in doubt, throw it out.” He emphasizes that children should be urged to avoid going near wild mushrooms in order to avoid consumption.

He recommends monitoring backyards for signs of mushroom growth, particularly after rainfall, and keeping pets on a leash as a safeguard.