Touching Mushrooms Won’t Give You Mushroom Poisoning

The world of fungi is a truly fascinating one and learning about identifying mushrooms can be a long road! There are many edible mushrooms and many very toxic ones, which makes it important to take a lot of time learning with books, guides, and most importantly local experts in your area before you start foraging for yourself. That being said, there are quite a few myths about mushrooms that just aren’t true. One of these prevalent myths is that touching toxic mushrooms could give you mushroom poisoning, and maybe even kill you! This is false, let’s see why! 

Mushroom Poisoning 

The North American Mycological Association recognizes various major types of mushroom poisoning. Here we will just mention a few, but you can check out their page for more!

Muscarine Poisoning

The mushrooms involved here are Inocybe sp., Clitocybe rivulosa and some related species, as well as a few red-pored Boletus sp.. 

What are the symptoms? Rapidly occurring symptoms involving the nervous system. From sweating, crying, salivating and vomiting and diarrhea. It also impacts blood pressure, pulse and breathing. Most people recover after 24 hours but breathing complications can cause death in extreme cases.

How does muscarine work? Muscarine found in mushrooms  is known as a muscarinic agonist, meaning it attaches to and affects muscarinic receptors, which have diverse functions in various different parts of the body. Some examples are eyes, blood vessels, heart, lungs, and smooth muscle. The overactivation of these sites is what leads to the symptoms mentioned above. Despite its dangers, muscarine is being explored for use in therapies for various diseases related to the nervous system, such as Parkinson’s. 

Amanitin (Amatoxins) Poisoning 

Some of the mushrooms containing amatoxins are: Amanita phalloides, A. ocreata, A. bisporigera, Pholiotina (Conocybe) filaris, Galerina marginata, G. castaneipes, Lepiotia castanea, L. helveola, L. subincarnata, L. brunneoincarnata, L. brunneolilacea, among others.

This is the most serious kind of mushroom poisoning, which is why the first group of Amanita species here are named “destroying angels.” Fatality rate runs between 10-50% and medical attention must be received extremely quickly. The most dangerous part of this poisoning is that often the symptoms are delayed from 6-24 hours, at which point the toxins have already done significant damage on the liver and kidneys of the person. Second, often the patient will appear to recover after around 2 days, but really they are days away from liver failure and potential death. The only treatment is to try to flush the toxins out of the body with intense IV treatment and other methods. 

How do amatoxins work? These cyclic polypeptides damage tissues by actually inhibiting RNA synthesis within each individual cell, causing them to slowly die off. 

Poisoning from Omphalotus Species

The North American mushrooms involved here are: Omphalotus illudens, O. subilludins, and O. olivascens which are commonly known as Jack O’ Lantern mushrooms

These are actually glowing mushrooms that often get mistaken for chanterelles because they are orange and have a similar shape. Symptoms from poisoning tend to happen 1-3 hours after eating the mushrooms and can involve nausea, vomiting, cramps, diarrhea, headache, fatigue, weakness, dizziness and sometimes sweating and salivation. Luckily, most people recover after 12 hours without medical intervention.  

The compounds illudin M and illudin S. are behind the poisoning. They work by alkylating  DNA and damaging genetic material, which can actually cause cell death. Though harmful if consumed, illudins derived from mushrooms are actually being explored as cancer treatment! 

These are just a few examples of some mushrooms and the type of poisoning they can cause in people after they have been eaten. The important part here is that all of these toxins have to enter your bloodstream through the stomach or through your intestines in order to have an effect on you. 

Why Mycotoxins Don’t Enter Through The Skin

Contrary to popular belief, you can safely touch toxic mushrooms because these compounds do not seep through the skin. Now, some people can develop a rash from an allergic reaction to a mushroom, but if you ever see claims that you can be poisoned or die from touching a mushroom, you now know that they are likely untrue!

For something to enter your bloodstream by touch alone you must remember that it has to pass through all 3 layers of skin! This is difficult for most compounds and that is why things, like medicines, that we do want absorbed into the body often have to have some additive. Skin patches for example that deliver prescription drugs or nicotine need chemical enhancers and permeators, or physical aids like micro-needles, or low electrical currents and mini ultrasonic waves to help push compounds through your skin into the bloodstream. 

Most toxins found in poisonous mushrooms are firstly too large to pass through the skin and are also in too low a dose to have any sort of effect even if they are able to do so. 


Though there are a lot of beneficial medicinal mushrooms and delicious mushrooms that enhance our culinary experience, there are also toxic mushrooms that can poison people in many different ways. However, these toxic mushrooms have to be consumed by the person in order to enter the bloodstream. Touching toxic mushrooms will not harm you! So next time you’re out in the woods, don’t worry about touching new mushrooms, just do not eat them if you aren’t sure!

Written by Kirstynn Joseph

Kirstynn graduated with a Bachelors in Ecology from the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada in 2018. She was born in Yukon Territory, and is currently living in Ecuador, where she is working on various projects and exploring as much as she can before she figures out the next big adventure. She is passionate about the outdoors, about nature and conservation, and of course, science! She loves writing, art and photography and strives to share the wonders of our big mysterious world with as many people as she can.

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