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Toxicology: A Non-Drinking Man’s Mushrooms

2 minute read

Two men and two women appeared in the emergency room of St. Patrick’s Hospital in Missoula, Mont., one afternoon early last summer and insisted that they had been poisoned by drinking beer. The doctors were doubtful, but there was no denying that the patients’ faces were flushed, their hearts were racing, and they were vomiting. They complained of a metallic taste in their mouths, and of pins-and-needles sensations in their feet, legs and hands (which they said felt swollen, although they looked normal).

It took some detailed questioning, report Dr. William A. Reynolds and Dr. Fred H. Lowe, before an explanation was found. All four patients had been out on a mushroom hunt. They were too knowing to have picked any of the obviously poisonous species; most of what they had picked were inky caps (Coprinus atramentarius), and after a meal of inky caps, these four had drunk beer.

The vast majority of inky caps are harmless, report the Missoula doctors in the New England Journal of Medicine. But by one of nature’s quirks, a few inky caps contain the chemical disulfiram, better known by its trade name, Antabuse. This happens to be a drug that has no effect on teetotalers but makes a man sick if he takes a drink. The four unhappy mushroom hunters found that a moderate dose was enough to teach a sharp lesson.

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