What was supposed to be a delicious meal could have been the last for a Massachusetts woman and her adult son.
Kam Look and Kai Chen went out to forage for mushrooms to cook for dinner last month, but became extremely ill after eating the dish and were taken to UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester with severe, life-threatening liver damage, the hospital said in a statement.
It looked very similar to the mushrooms the mother and son had been able to safely forage in Malaysia, where they are originally from. Experts warn that the danger of lookalikes is always present for mushroom hunters.
The case is just one of several severe mushroom poisonings that have been reported in the Northeast this fall, worrying doctors and toxicologists.
The health emergencies come as people who hunt for mushrooms for culinary purposes are being joined by people who seek mushrooms for a psychedelic experience. Both groups may think they know what they’re looking for, but they risk picking extremely toxic doppelgängers.
“It’s ridiculously easy to mistake a poisonous mushroom for an edible one,” Dr. Robert Bassett, associate medical director of the Poison Control Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, tells TODAY.com.
“Not only can mushroom (poisoning) be serious. Tragically, it can be deadly," Bassett says.
The center, which covers about half of Pennsylvania and all of Delaware, saw 25 cases of mushroom poisoning from mid-September to mid-October, Bassett says. Of those, 10 people had to be hospitalized; three required intensive care and one needed an organ transplant.
“The thing that was most alarming to us — and which really drove the urgency to get a public service announcement out — was the severity of cases was atypical,” Bassett adds.
“This is an uptick, and this does feel more severe in terms of the consequences than we’ve had in recent memory.”
In late September, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center warned that several patients reported eating foraged mushrooms that appeared to be “highly toxic.”
Wild mushrooms are having a moment
So far this year, 1,895 cases of mushroom exposure among adults have been reported to poison control nationwide, according to America’s Poison Centers, which represents 55 poison centers across the U.S.
That includes 1,081 cases categorized as “abuse,” where mushrooms were used “with the intent of achieving a psychological effect,” the organization tells TODAY.com. That’s almost double the number of such cases compared to 2019, when 631 were recorded.
Cases associated with foraging and other reasons, labeled by the organization as mushroom “misuse,” have also gone up during that time period, but not as dramatically — 714 in 2019 compared to 814 so far this year.
The majority of recent cases at the Philadelphia poison control center have involved people foraging for mushrooms for culinary reasons, Bassett says. But he's also worried that the buzz surrounding the use of psychedelics, including compounds found in “magic mushrooms,” is potentially driving people to expose themselves to the same danger.
Wild mushrooms have been having a moment in recent years. They can be a tasty part of a plant-based diet. The 2019 Netflix documentary “Fantastic Fungi” explores their benefits for the mind and body. The 2022 Netflix docuseries “How to Change Your Mind” includes a closer look at psilocybin, the hallucinogenic chemical found in certain types of mushrooms.
Social media is full of tips and images for foragers: videos containing the hashtag #mushroomforaging have accumulated 44 million views on TikTok and Instagram posts containing the hashtag #mushroomhunting number in the hundreds of thousands.
“There’s a lot of knowledge sharing on the Internet … (and) the reliability can vary dramatically,” Bassett warns.
There are many ways to get sick so North American Mycological Association lists the most common types of mushroom poisoning, such as gastrointestinal irritants and kidney damage.
Desperate measures include experimental drug
When things go very wrong, as in the case of Kam Look and Kai Chen’s severe mushroom poisoning in Massachusetts, doctors must work quickly. The death rate for the mother and son’s type of Amanita-induced liver injury is 30 to 50%, according to UMass Memorial Medical Center, so the hospital requested the compassionate use of Legalon, an investigational new drug.
It can prevent liver damage from mushroom poisoning, but is still undergoing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval process so a special authorization is required for patients who need it now, Bassett says.
Kai Chen improved with the medicine, but his mother’s liver damage was so severe that she needed a transplant, according to the hospital. A donated liver became available within days, and she underwent successful surgery to save her life. Both mother and son are now back home.
Experts urge mushroom lovers to leave the identification up to the experts and not to rely on social media or mushroom identification apps.
“Right now ... I don’t think the technology is reliable enough to make a decision that could have life or death consequences,” Bassett says.
“The safest way to ensure that (you) are eating mushrooms that are non-toxic, that are non-poisonous is simply to buy them in a store,” he adds.
If you or someone you know may have been exposed to a dangerous substance, contact your poison center immediately at 1-800-222-1222 or go to poisonhelp.org for assistance.