The death cap (Amanita phalloides) is a deadly poisonous mushroom that causes the majority of fatal mushroom poisonings. Image Credit: Shutterstock

In August, Australia reported a bizarre case of mushroom poisoning in Leongatha, a small town near Melbourne.

Four family members met for lunch and were urgently rushed to emergency care on suspected cases of acute ‘death cap’ mushroom (Amanita phalloide) poisoning. Three of them - Gail Patterson, her husband Don Patterson and Heather Wilkinson - died from poisoning while Heather’s husband, Ian Wilkinson, was in critical condition for close to two months.

While such cases are rare in the continent, the growth of death caps has become more visible around the world. The mushroom camouflages itself among the fungal masses, making it a serious health risk to independent foragers, unsuspecting shoppers and amateur chefs.

Here’s all you need to know about the death cap wild mushroom.

What are mushrooms?

Mushrooms are umbrella-shaped fungi. They survive by taking nutrients from surrounding organisms like plants, soil and other living creatures. It is theorised that there are about 14,000 species of mushrooms.

Where are mushrooms found usually?

Mushrooms often grow in three places – on living trees or bushes, on dead organisms or logs, or at the roots of trees. Mushrooms are a widespread occurrence and thrive in damp areas.

Are mushrooms edible?

Image Credit: Pixabay

While most mushrooms are edible, such as Shiitake, Button, Portobello, and Porcini, some wild mushrooms are fatal if ingested. Wild mushroom poisoning symptoms can range from slight gastrointestinal issues like nausea and diarrhoea to long-term hallucinations and coma.

What are death cap mushrooms?

About 3% of mushrooms are known to be toxic, out of which the most dangerous, and most common, is observed to be the ‘death cap’ mushroom. This particular type of wild mushroom is responsible for approximately 90% of mushroom-related poisonings.

What makes death caps so lethal?

Death caps have toxins that prevent the production of necessary proteins within the body, leading to organ failure. These toxins cannot be removed once cooked. Initial symptoms begin 6 to 32 hours after ingestion, starting with abdominal pain and nausea. This can progress critically into internal bleeding, comas, liver and kidney failure, and even death. Only a small number of people recover from the poisoning with timely intervention and appropriate treatment.

Where do death caps originate?

The first traces of the death caps are recorded to have occurred in Europe, UK and parts of Ireland. The incidence of these mushrooms have spread not only throughout the European continent but also in parts of the US and, more recently, Australia. Death caps sprout mainly under oak trees, found in abundance in places like British Columbia and California.

How can one distinguish between death cap and ordinary mushrooms?

Death caps have a pale yellowish-green, at times pale brown or near-white, umbrella-shaped cap of 10-cm diameter, a white stem, white spores on the cap, a cup-like formation at the base of the stem and a ring that forms on the stem. It is primarily odourless but emits a strong foul smell once dry. The identification of the death cap and distinguishing it from other edible mushrooms is problematic as the toxic mushroom looks just like non-toxic mushrooms.

How did the mushrooms arrive in Australia?

It is still unclear how death caps emerged in Australia as the country is not a conventional host for the poisonous fungi. Many researchers speculate that the mushrooms migrated accidentally along with their hosts, the oak trees, during the replantation of trees. However, this theory remains unconfirmed. Australian death caps are found in Southern Australia, Canberra, and Victoria.

In case of death cap poisoning, what are the treatments available?

There are no known effective and absolute treatments for mushroom poisoning. In the event of mushroom poisoning, immediately visit your nearest healthcare provider for further intervention.

- Sampurna Dutta is an intern at Gulf News