Imagine going foraging for mushrooms with your fellow mushroom hunters for your next delicious soup, and you come across some poisonous mushrooms. Not just any, but the death cap mushroom.
How will you be able to tell it apart from a regular mushroom? After all, it looks innocent enough, just look like any other wild mushroom. As the name indicates, it’s a poisonous mushroom, but unlike other poison mushrooms, this one won’t just give you a headache, or abdominal cramps, make you vomit, or make you sick for a few days.
The catch is that the death cap likely has enough toxins to make you very sick before it eventually kills you. What’s spookier is that these toxins can be cooked right into your food! The mushroom tastes very similar to any other, and its effects don’t appear until 6 to 12 hours of ingesting it; sometimes, it may even take 36 hours and higher.
Don’t worry; there is ample research about this mushroom, and there is a lot you can do to avoid consuming it!
Here are things you should know about the death cap mushroom; Amanita Phalloides.
What is a death cap mushroom?
In simple terms, Amanita Phalloides (pronounced A-ma-neet-uh Fuh-loi-dees), more commonly known as ‘the death cap mushroom,’ is a poisonous mushroom found primarily in Europe, Australia, and the pacific northwest. It is pale green/olive green in color and has a cup like structure.
It’s a basidiomycete fungi species from the genus Amanita and is regarded as the most dangerous mushroom ever found naturally. This is a mushroom that primarily grows on the roots of deciduous trees and sometimes oak tree species, living on them under a symbiotic relationship.
The mushrooms consume sugars from the tree roots and provide nutrients to the roots from the soil, thus becoming codependent on each other.
How the death cap mushroom traveled:
Well, mushrooms are pretty much completely immobile. What’s more, mushrooms attached to the roots of trees generally have degrading spores that don’t travel far before they degenerate.
They primarily reproduce around each other. Then how is it possible that a genus of mushroom that was primarily found in Europe up until the 1930s was appearing in the lawns and trees of settlements on the east coast of the USA?
The story is quite interesting. The death cap mushroom wasn’t moved intentionally; their host trees were. They traveled attached to their host tree, which was being moved to the States for ornamental purposes!
The decorative deciduous trees brought an incredible variety to people’s gardens. Still, it also brought along with it a poisonous silverly-green mushroom that was a lot more dangerous than it looked.
This new species was introduced to North America and Australia (Australian national botanic gardens) due to human intervention. Soon after, the mushrooms were widely distributed; they began holding neighboring trees, spreading quickly and easily.
Of all the mushroom poisonings reported each year, about 90 percent are caused by death cap mushroom poisoning. Amanita Phalloides have been ranked as the most deadly mushroom in the world! Studies state that most of the deaths reported after the consumption of a foraged wild mushroom caused by ingesting a death cap mushroom.
The scary part is that the toxins present in the death cap mushroom are resistant to cooking; the amanita mushroom contains amatoxins, a toxic chemical component that is heat resistant. Many people died weeks after consuming this mushroom, without knowing that their severe cases of ‘food poisoning’ was death cap mushroom poisoning/amanita mushroom poisoning.
The amatoxin is the most poisonous toxin found in any mushroom, and foragers eating wild mushrooms often find it hard to distinguish between them and other types.
These mushrooms, if consumed, can have a mortality rate of anything between 25 percent to 50 percent, the highest among poisonous mushrooms.
This is because a single Amanita Phalloides mushroom has a toxin concentration of about 5 to 7 milligrams (of the amatoxin; it also contains phallotoxins and virotoxins), and a lethal dose is about 0.1 mg/kg body weight. Even half of this mushroom is enough to kill one person.
What happens when someone has death cap poisoning?
Amanita Phalloides’ high toxicity initially does not present any symptoms of death cap. One may consume the death caps much like eating wild mushrooms and feel fine for 6-24 hours. After this period, the amatoxins begin presenting symptoms; nausea, abdominal pain, and severe vomiting come as the first symptoms.
After this, for about 12 to 24 hours, one will experience the worst symptoms of death cap, including severe diarrhea and dehydration. If left untreated, within 24 to 48 hours of this, patients can experience severe fluid loss and eventually internal organ damage.
The amatoxins target mainly the kidneys and the liver. 60% of the absorbed amatoxins are processed and excreted into the bile. These can lead to severe complications like permanent damage to kidney failure and liver failure.
Suppose a patient has any pre-existing illness that hinders intact kidney function or the workings of the liver or gall bladder(like diabetes). In that case, amatoxin poisoning is near impossible to survive.
This bile then enters the gastrointestinal tract through the gall bladder and hence into the bloodstream. In this long process, the amatoxins are harmful enough that the cell dies in the liver within 24 hours.
What if someone ingests Amanita Phalloides?
Amanita Phalloides can kill your liver and kidneys very easily and, more importantly, very quickly and quietly. If you think you or someone you know has consumed the death cap, you must make sure you get to the closest emergency room at the earliest.
The quicker the medical intervention, the lower the risk of death. Supportive measures primarily include symptomatic treatment and administering fluids. So far, there is no specific antidote to this toxin.
This means that the only other option is to keep the body healthy for long enough to let the toxin pass the system naturally. Poisonous mushrooms are notorious for causing severe complications rapidly; intervention must be administered carefully and deftly.
There have been studies that suggest that plasmapheresis, the method initially used to flush the toxin out of the body, can be less effective than forced diuresis, which is essentially pumping the body with excess fluid so that it passes through a patient’s urine and flushes out the toxin.
However, the survival rate using both methods has been near-identical. In essence, one must seek medical intervention within 24 hours or less of consuming Amanita Phalloides to ensure that the risk of death due to the necrosis of liver cells and renal failure is at its lowest.
If you’re unsure what you ate was an amanita mushroom, seek help as soon as possible and get to the hospital immediately in case you might need to later, even before you experience symptoms. In worst cases of delayed medical attention, there is a chance of brain swelling and subsequent permanent brain damage, internal bleeding due to liver damage, and multi-organ failure.
This level of irreversible liver damage may even need a patient to get a liver transplant.
In 2012, in Australia, a chef and his assistant died after 2 days of waiting for a liver transplant after consuming the death cap in a new years meal. Another dinner guest survived after a successful transplant.
Treatment for amatoxin poisoning
One of the most effective treatments for amatoxin poisonings is intravenous silibinin. Silibinin is a milk thistle derivative.
It can prevent the uptake of the amatoxins, protecting the liver from cell necrosis. Studies suggest that this milk thistle derivative has successfully helped patients recover from amanita species-related poisoning by helping avoid hepatic failure.
If this scares you, don’t worry! Focus on keeping healthy in general; eat well, limit drinking alcohol and drink plenty of water to keep your gut, liver, and kidneys in great shape!
Is there a way to make Amanita Phalloides safe to eat?
No. There is absolutely no way to ingest this mushroom of the amanita species. You can remove the toxins by peeling, drying, cooking, or salting. Yet some adventurous people have tried this mushroom!
Most survivors of this feat have said that the mushroom tastes delicious! It has a meaty texture and a strong umami flavor, people say. This means that there is nothing in the taste that can warn you of its toxicity.
Interestingly, if you chew this mushroom and spit it out, it will not kill you. Technically, you can taste it without dying, but you will probably get quite sick.
Will touching a death cap mushroom poison me?
No. This type of poisoning generally happens only if it’s ingested. You can touch the mushroom without getting poisoned if you are careful not to bring it near your mouth or nose. Make sure to wash your hands thoroughly after handling them, though. It would still be preferable if you were wearing gloves, though.
Can death cap kill my pets?
Yes. Death cap can cause severe illness and even death in animals, particularly dogs and cats. Amatoxin poisoning has a higher rate of mortality among canines and felines.
Accidental mushroom ingestion can cause them to experience symptoms to develop as early as 30 minutes but can take up to 6 hours. Even a small part of a mushroom can contain a lethal dose for smaller animals.
Coma and death due to multi-organ failure can set in quicker in animals than people since the cause can go undetected for a long time before medical intervention. However, Amanita Phalloides are not lethal to rabbits or squirrels.
Identifying a death cap mushroom among other wild mushrooms
‘Death cap’ Amanita Phalloides is notorious not just for its high toxicity but also for its innocent look. It can closely resemble caesar’s mushrooms as well as edible species of straw mushrooms.
The young death cap is domed in shape, almost bullet-like. Older Amanita Phalloides have flatter, wider caps that can grow naturally up to 3 to 6 inches in diameter. The stems of mature mushrooms can be about 2 to 6 inches in length.
The mushrooms have closely spaced white gills and yellowish green stems. Amanita Phalloides have white spores. You can get a spore print off a mushroom by overnight placing the cap on dark paper.
You can expect a spore print white. Death cap spores stain blue when exposed to Meltzer’s solution.
They also have a bulbous base covered with the skin-like volva, a sac that can be used as a tremendous distinguishing factor compared to other mushrooms.
This sac will likely be under the surface of the soil. They have a skirt like membrane under the cap, slightly off-white. A death cap’s white color is the reason it is also termed as a ‘destroying angel’.
If you touch the surface of the cap of this poisonous species, you may be able to detect an adhesive layer that will be slightly sticky on your hands. Amanita phalloides also have a distinct smell of ammonia.
There have routinely been signs with “do not eat” and “poisonous” written on signs in neighborhoods where these mushrooms are found since they look like straw mushrooms, almost deceivingly so.
A death cap mushroom will also likely be seen around other death cap mushrooms; they have quick-degenerating spores released from the fruiting bodies, so they don’t grow far and wide. They degenerate in sunlight, which is why it is common to find them growing under loose pavements and in deeper forests or directly under overgrown tree roots with spaces below them!
A death cap will most likely be seen only near mature trees old enough to store sugars in their roots.
The Amanita phalloides then bind themselves to the mature tree’s roots in an ectomycorrhizal relationship. Research suggests that when saplings were brought to be regrown in British Columbia.
On the east coast of the USA from Europe from across the Atlantic, the root binding mycelia of the fungus remained dormant in the sapling and only came to grow once the sapling had been planted. Decades had passed, allowing it to mature into a fully grown tree!
You can expect to find death cap primarily under oak trees and pine trees, sometimes under eucalyptus, birch, beech, and chestnut trees.
They will be located around 1 to 15 feet from the trees. When found in the pacific northwest, this mushroom took people by surprise since it was a non-native species in North America.
False Death Cap & Psychoactive Mushrooms
Amanita Phalloides look very similar to its cousin Amanita Citrina, a similar species that is mildly toxic but not nearly as harmful as the death cap. These can also be found in British Columbia and parts of Europe.
Many suspected death cap mushrooms are Amanita Citrina, dubbed the ‘false death cap’ because of the similarity. The toxin concentration in Amanita Citrina is so low that consuming it in a small amount will do little to no damage to a healthy adult human.
It is not an edible mushroom species of the Amanita genus since one can easily confuse its cousin species; it is recommended you don’t eat it if you find one!
Can there be an edible species of poisonous mushroom? The answer is yes. And it belongs to the same genus as the deadly Amanita Phalloides.
These are also known as ‘fly agaric.’ This edible amanita species is very easily distinguishable from its hyper-poisonous cousin; it has a distinct yellowish to orange-red color and has a psychoactive ingredient called muscimol that can make you hallucinate.
These effects have not been studied extensively, so do not experiment because over-consumption of this mushroom may cause serious illness. You can remove the poison from this mushroom by boiling it in water; consuming the boiled water may intoxicate you.
The effects of this intoxication may last for 30 minutes to 2 hours, depending on how much you ingest.
The Bottom Line
There are some fantastic mushrooms, some inedible, and some edible mushrooms. ‘Death cap’ Amanita Phalloides is something you should steer clear of.
You can contact your nearest poison information centre to know if this mushroom or any of its fascinating family members can be found around the area where you live.
If you happen to live in an area, you know what to do; look out for the death cap in your backyard and maybe stick to edible fungi you can find on the supermarket shelves for your soup!
Edited by Pooja Motwani
While at times contributed by guest authors, our content is medically reviewed periodically by professionals for accuracy and relevance. We pride ourselves on our high-quality content and strive towards offering expertise while being authoritative. Our reviewers include doctors, nurses, mental health professionals, and even medical students.
Do note that any information found on the site does not constitute legal or medical advice. Should you face health issues, please visit your doctor to get yourself diagnosed. Icy Health offers expert opinions and advice for informational purposes only. This is not a substitute for professional medical advice.