N.J. mushroom poisonings spike, some potentially life-threatening

The region’s wet weather may be doing more than just ruining summer vacation days — it might be leading to a spike in mushroom poisonings in New Jersey, experts say.

Poisonings from wild mushrooms have jumped in the Garden State, with 15 new cases reported since late July, requiring some victims to be hospitalized “with potentially life-threatening consequences,” according to the New Jersey Poison Information and Education System at Rutgers University.

Mushroom poisoning can result in vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, organ damage, and, in the most severe cases, death. No one in the reported cases has died.

Already, the center has logged 64 cases for the year.

“I truly believe it’s partly weather-related,” said Bruce Ruck, a pharmacist and a director at the center. “We are seeing a lot of mushroom blooms. It’s been rainy and at a temperature where the mushrooms bloom greater.”

What’s worrisome, Ruck said, is that the peak season has yet to hit. Most poisonings occur from August to October.

By comparison, there were 105 cases for 2016.  And, in 2015, there were only 66 poisonings for the entire year.

“If we keep at this rate,” Ruck said, “we will come close to doubling our normal rate.”

Children wandering outside on lawns with fresh mushrooms popping up are often victims, Ruck said, because toddlers tend to “put things in their mouths.”  Dogs, too, suffer poisonings.

Adults are also at risk. Even experienced mushroom pickers have been known to get it wrong, say doctors at the Rutgers medical school, home of the poison information center.

“We have adults who pick a mushroom and say, ‘Wow, that looks like what I buy or what I ate in another country on vacation, or what I ate where I grew up,'” Ruck said. But, he added, they can’t see the toxin lurking inside.

Medical experts have also discovered that many people are turning to the internet to identify edible wild mushrooms. The sites lull people into reassurance.

Ruck said it was too early to determine whether a particular species of mushroom was to blame.

A severe outbreak of mushroom poisonings in California made news recently.  In June, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report that mushrooms picked in the wild last year in California poisoned 14 people. Two adults required liver transplants. An 18-month-old baby required a liver transplant and also had permanent neurological impairment.

In the California case, officials specifically warned about the mushroom Amanita phalloides, known as the “death cap,” a fungus responsible for more than 90 percent of the world’s mushroom-related deaths. They are so toxic that ingesting one mushroom can be fatal.

But Ruck says there are different species of Amanita, so it’s hard to pinpoint any one species as the cause in New Jersey poisonings.

Mostly, the poisoning have been limited to gastrointestinal issues (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea), but in the past, the state has seen liver issues and fatalities.

“Take a look at your lawns this week,” Ruck said. “We worry about dogs, kids playing in the backyard. Mom and Dad go in the house for five minutes and — boom.”

What should you do if you suspect poisoning?

According to Rutgers’ poison center, do not waste time trying to self-diagnose on the internet. If someone is unconscious, having difficulty breathing, or can’t wake up, call 911.

You can also call the center at 1-800-222-1222, a quick way to find medical help or reliable information. The center can arrange for an expert to identify mushrooms and provide advice.

If you suspect a person has swallowed a poisonous mushroom, remove any remaining pieces from the person’s mouth and place the fragments in a paper bag. Do not use plastic. Taking a picture will also help, especially if you place the mushroom next to a ruler or an object such as a coin for scale.