You CAN Get Sick from Touching Toxic Mushrooms
I do not know where it started, but someone, somewhere, has claimed that you absolutely CANNOT get sick from handling mushrooms. Once stated, all sorts of wanna-be "experts" have adopted this as final law, and proclaim to the world that this is an absolute rule!
Now, it is NOT the most EXPERT voices who say this. It is only the LOUDEST voices that say this. And with the growth of the internet, this myth is so enshrined that many medical sources are echoing it, having NO idea whether there is any substance or truth to it or not. The loud voices will beat into silence and publicly abuse and shame anyone who claims otherwise, and muzzle them by removing their data on public forums, and scrubbing the web as far as they are able - hence, many good people continue to be told this, and are unable to find accounts of illness caused by handling toxic mushrooms (Doctors will simply classify it as unknown digestive upset, or some other generic diagnosis, but credible accounts DO exist).
Those who espouse this myth and defend it ignore the fact that experts will qualify their statements that it cannot harm you with disclaimers -
"Oh, I'd wash my hands though, if I were you."
"I wouldn't try handling a LOT of those if you know they are poisonous."
"I'm not certain, and I can't recommend you take this as law."
And my favorite: "Oh, no, the toxins won't pass through into your skin, but some of the other (poisonous) alkaloids in it might."
Can you get sick from touching toxic mushrooms? YES
Can mushroom toxins be absorbed through the skin? YES
The fallacy that you cannot absorb mushroom toxins through the skin is one of the most illogical myths about mushrooms that I have ever heard, and a pretty dangerous one. The same people who will caution you about handling toxic plants will tell you it is perfectly fine to handle toxic mushrooms with your bare hands, and even to chew and spit a bit to confirm an ID by taste (something I have NEVER done with a mushroom I cannot identify).
I have encountered many so called "experts" who have argued that I must be insane to imagine that it was a mushroom that made me sick if I did not actually eat it. These people say that "all science refutes this".
In fact, all science SUPPORTS that it CAN, and DOES happen.
- Mushroom toxins are just chemicals. That's all. There is nothing special about them that puts them in a class of chemicals that are so special that they do not follow the same rules of biology and chemistry that other chemicals are bound by.
- Chemicals can absorb through the skin. We know this. Medications are administered this way. Herbicides and other toxic substances poison people this way (hazmat suit, anyone?). It is less efficient than absorption through the digestive tract, but it is an established fact. IF THEY ARE WATER SOLUBLE, THEY CAN ABSORB THROUGH THE SKIN.
- Mushroom toxins are water soluble. They need no special preparation to be absorbed through skin, and they can be released from the mushroom if the mushroom is moist. They are not as likely to be released if the mushroom is dried, unless you have quite a bit of moisture on your hands. Toxins from Amanita muscaria (and many other mushrooms) can be parboiled out of the mushroom, and this fact is well known. The water in which they are boiled pulls the toxins out, and the water is discarded. In order for the mushroom to release the toxins into the water, the toxins MUST be water soluble. The water can then make you ill if you ingest it. (It would if you bathed in it also.) In fact, the lore of A. muscaria is that the water from boiling it was used to induce a high (with accompanying digestive distress, which is often downplayed).
- There is nothing special about mycellium (mushroom tissue) that binds its elements fully to it until it is digested. Mushrooms are like every other substance, if you chop them up and get them wet, they will release a broth that is more than just water. That broth WILL include toxins if it is a toxic mushroom. How do you think mushroom toxins are isolated in the first place?
- Just because "everybody says", doesn't mean it is so, tradition is overturned in the face of valid science every day. Once upon a time, many mushrooms were considered "safe", which are now proven through studies, to cause specific damage to the human body under specific conditions. Everybody said they were good to eat. Everybody was wrong. There is no valid science that proclaims mushrooms to be non-toxic when handling. And there is nothing that says that valid science may not contradict tradition.
- Some mushrooms ARE known to cause reactions only from handling them. This is documented rather contradictorily by several sources, one of whome stipulates in their overview that you cannot be harmed by handling mushrooms, and then in their listings regarding toxic mushrooms, they list reactions caused by dermal exposure (they tend to class them as an allergy, but there are reactions that are NOT allergic). If reactions can be caused by dermal exposure, then toxins CAN be absorbed through the skin - if not so, a negative reaction would be possible.
So we have established, by KNOWN and PROVEN SCIENCE, that mushroom toxins ARE a risk for dermal (skin) absorption. That there is no way they could NOT be a risk.
It is also well known that some mushrooms cause allergic reactions from handling them. This is NOT what we are talking about. I have had an allergic reaction from handling dried Porcini (Italian Boletus edulis - I do not react to Rocky Mountain Boletus edulis). The reactions are different, with the allergy just being itching or redness, and not a systemic reaction involving tingling, burning, or nausea, etc.
Many people experience harmful effects from handling mushrooms. They just do not connect it up. They say, "Oh, it must have been something other than the mushroom.", or they never even THINK of the mushroom as a potential cause for their illness a day or a week or two later.
I'm willing to bet the majority of avid mushroom foragers who have handled a toxic mushroom HAVE been sickened by handling a mushroom at least once, and did not connect it up, because by the time a person gets sick they blame it on something else. Usually the affects are mild - nausea, stomach cramps, muscle aches, sweating, weakness, headache, decreased urine output and a little edema, disorientation or dizziness, insomnia, busy or disorganized thoughts, or a period of time with an overactive imagination, etc. Enough that you may lose a day of work, or think about going home, but not enough to hospitalize you. And that ONLY because the exposure was very mild.
Remember, effects of deadly Amanitas can be two or three weeks later. C. molybdites occurs 18-24 hours later, with nausea and weakness when exposed through the skin or mucus membranes. Amanita muscaria toxicity through skin starts within minutes - like within 20-30 minutes with stomach and intestinal cramping (very mild but sharp cramps). Many occur several days to a week later, or more.
Are you really going to remember and connect that up?
Additionally, dermal exposure results in a FAR LOWER degree of toxicity than consumption of the mushroom does. The symptoms are LESS SEVERE, and often written off to some other minor exposure. When you have mild stomach cramps and an active imagination for a few hours, and it starts within a few minutes of handling Amanita muscaria, you think you were exposed a few days before to a stomach flu, or maybe you got toxed from someone's air freshener. You just don't put it down to the mushroom you picked up, photographed, held and examined, broke open, and studied thoroughly.
Foragers typically do not handle large amounts of toxic mushrooms at one time, unless we are studying them - and here is both the comfort and the warning! Generally we pick one or two, and take them back for ID. Once we know how to recognize them, we are DONE with them, and no longer pick them - and minimal handling usually does not result in reactions.
For researchers though, caution is in order, because handling large amounts of toxic mushrooms DOES present a risk, and the more you handle, the greater the risk.
My first experience with this was with Chlorophyllum molybdites, and it happened twice within a week, so the combination of symptoms and time to onset allowed me to CORRECTLY attribute the cause to the effect.
I picked and examined a large number of Chlorophyllum molybdites for a research project we were doing for our research farm. Probably 20 specimens from several locations. Picked them, put them in a paper bag, brought them home, laid some out for images and to dehydrate, and take spore prints, and handled perhaps 2 more specimens while examining them to make sure I had a good solid memory for the key identifiers for that species exactly, especially in instances where the gills did not turn colors (we discovered that lawns that have been treated with herbicide may produce C. molybdites mushrooms that retain white gills while fully mature).
About 12 hours later, I had mild digestive upset, and mild diarrhea. Enough to make me not feel hungry or interested in food, and to just feel yucky all day - it lasted less than 24 hours. About one attack of mild diarrhea, not severe. I noticed that I was ill, but did not QUITE make the connection that it was the mushrooms that did it. I was ill enough to REMEMBER that I'd been ill.
Several days later I collected additional specimens from a new location, for further study, and to conduct an experiment regarding edibility (Chlorophyllum molybdites mushrooms ARE in fact edible if cooked in a specific manner, and there is a sufficient body of evidence online to back this up). I collected perhaps a dozen specimens this time, again handling them when picking, and when placing them on the drying surface after I got home. I handled FEWER, and less intensively this time.
Again, about 18 hours later, I had mild digestive upset, feeling nauseous and yucky. Did not really have noticeable diarrhea this time, and the digestive upset was a little less severe, did not last all day, but was noticeable enough that I finally made the connection in having collected the mushrooms the prior day, and that the same thing had happened the last time I had done so.
I was monitoring my health fairly closely at the time, because I was having issues with an unrelated airborne allergy, and trying to isolate what had caused it, so I was paying attention.
Most people do NOT pay attention. If they go foraging one day, and feel a little sick the next day, they put it down to a bug they caught at work, the sandwich they had for lunch, or something else, and rarely connect it with what they were doing the day before.
Given that the symptoms I experienced were a lessened version of the classic poisoning symptoms for C. molybdites, it is entirely reasonable to assume that my reaction was exactly what I said it was.
I had a similar experience later with Amanita muscaria, and it caused a minimized version of the classic symptoms. Again, I did not put it together until the next day, and not fully until it happened a second time.
I had fairly sharp stomach cramps, followed by diarrhea the next day, and that first night had a few hours of VERY vivid and bizarre dreaming while I slept.
This was after handling the equivalent of about 3-4 large mushrooms (they were damp), slicing them to dry for later parboil experiments.
Subsequent handling of A. muscaria several days, then a week or so later resulted in mild nausea with extremely light cramping, but I was fairly careful in handling them, and used a glove for part of the processing.
I do not use mushrooms recreationally, I am not STUPID - the cramping hits before you could EVER experience any kind of high, and the stomach upset is so bad that you'd never enjoy the experience anyway!
The symptoms were consistent, and there is no doubt that it came from the mushrooms. And no, I am not psychosomatic, I don't function that way.
I still gather these, but am very careful touching them with my hands - often have to, I just don't carry gloves with me.
I also noticed a sort of faint tingly burn feeling on my fingers where I'd handled the A. muscaria. This was repeated each time I have processed them.
Perhaps I am someone who is just overly sensitive to mushroom toxins? No.
I handled several in all instances - enough to get a good exposure on my hands. That is all.
Picking ONE is unlikely to affect someone. Picking several, toting them back for examination and microscopic analysis or preservation, is VERY likely to cause the same reaction, in ANYONE.
I have found that the toxic effects through the skin are worse with WET mushrooms than they are with dryer ones. This is reasonable, since we are dealing with water soluble toxins.
Most people NEVER pay attention. In their mind, it could not happen, therefore it never has, even if it HAS happened.
There are some who are so SURE that EVERYTHING they have been taught about mushrooms is true (because they READ it somewhere!), that they will argue to their grave that this COULD NOT happen, and that anyone who says it does is clearly either too inexperienced to truly understand science, or that they are mentally unbalanced in some way or another.
They argue this in the face of a total LACK of credible scientific evidence to support their claim. They will argue this while their head is over the toilet bowl because they were a little careless with something a few hours before. They will PROVE to themselves that it CAN happen, and continue to holler to the world that they just coincidentally contracted a hallucinating version of stomach flu.
Pay attention, and you may discover (as I did), that the unreasonable myth is exactly that... unreasonable.
WHY would it be safe to chew and spit, when SOME of what you put in your mouth WILL BE swallowed whether you intend it or not?
Why WOULDN'T mushroom toxins, like any other toxin, be absorbable through the skin?
There is nothing magical about mushrooms that exempts them from the same laws of chemistry and biology that plants and animals are subject to!
It is entirely reasonable to assume that they CAN absorb through the skin and mouth (or remain in saliva that is swallowed), since that is the case with EVERY OTHER substance on the earth.
There is NO research on this topic. It is all assumption and "everybody says". There has NEVER been a study done to test whether mushroom toxins of any kind ARE absorbable through the skin - in part because they are TOXINS! It is unethical to administer toxins in an unknown dose with unknown potentials, where doing so may cause permanent harm. So NOBODY has studied this.
If you are one of those people who insists that this cannot be true, SHOW ME THE EVIDENCE that they CANNOT absorb. Show me the controlled studies. Show me the research and reports that prove that it cannot happen. Without that EVIDENCE, claims that it cannot are bogus. Entirely bogus.
If you are someone who is SO SURE it could NEVER happen, go and TEST it. Rub some mushroom into your skin - be VERY generous, just to be sure. Why not? It can't hurt you after all! You might as well give a whirl!
And IF YOU WON'T, then NOTHING you have to say on the subject has any meaning AT ALL, and you are just a noise and a wind, without any credibility!
In spite of the claim that "everybody says it can't happen", MANY sources recommend that you DO NOT handle Galerina species with bare hands, and that you NEVER taste and spit with them. Some of the same people who were claiming that you cannot get sick from handling them or from tasting them were quick to add "but I don't think I'd do that with a Galerina" (just in case, you see, that they MIGHT be wrong, even though they COULD NOT be wrong).
So, based on genuine science, and reasonable logic, I am PLEADING with you that you NOT handle KNOWN poisonous species of mushrooms with your bare hands, and that you NEVER taste and spit unidentified mushrooms, especially the "Little Brown Mushrooms" (LBMs). This is not scaremongering, this is just applied intelligence.
I do know it WAS the toxic mushrooms that caused the illness with both species that made me ill, and since there is ABSOLUTELY NO scientific or medical "rule" that says that mushroom toxins cannot absorb through the skin (all of the "rules" say they WILL do so), and since it has NEVER actually been researched, I'm operating under the rule of caution where handling unknowns are concerned, and especially where handling known poisonous mushrooms are concerned.
To assume they do NOT cause issues is the unreasonable assumption. And it IS purely a myth.
If you run into people who perpetuate this myth, they will attack you violently when they realize they have NO scientific evidence to back their claim. All they have is many people repeating something they HEARD, somewhere. The earth is FLAT, folks! Because everyone says so!
Hang onto logic and fact. And be careful out there!
Since writing this I have been attacked many times by people who have called me "irresponsible", and said that my claims are "dangerous", and "harmful to the field of mycology".
This, from people who casually disregard the risk, and advise people to engage in actions that truly ARE dangerous. Advising caution is not dangerous! Ridiculing caution IS truly irresponsible.
I've been bullied by people demanding that I retract my statements, and one pompous individual felt compelled to take exception to my writing style. None of them had the LEAST evidence or scientific ground for their outrage.
Next, they will be insulting my hair color and pitying my dog.
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