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The bad fungi

Fungi have been around for millions and millions of years and lots of them have been used to make life for humans that bit better!  Fungi like mushrooms are used as food, fungi is used in the baking and brewing industries to make breads, beers and wines and in medicine to make antibiotics.  But not all fungi are good for you – some are pretty bad – but why is this?

The different kinds of mushrooms you find in the supermarket are tasty and good for you but eating certain kinds of mushrooms from the wild can make you very ill.  Only properly trained people can tell which types of wild mushrooms are safe to eat so it is wise not to eat a mushroom you find growing in the wild as it could be poisonous!  Quite often the prettiest mushrooms, the ones that have bright colours like the red Amanita muscaria with the little white spots, are poisonous!  The most dangerous mushroom, the Death Cap, mushroom is a plain white colour and beautiful to look at, but just a little can be lethal!  Lots of people are made very sick from eating mushrooms they pick in the wild.  They get a range of nasty symptoms, from a sore tummy to an allergic reaction or even total organ failure and death!  Remember, its not just the ugly mushrooms that are dangerous, the toxins from pretty-looking and tasty mushrooms can kill you, even after the mushrooms have been cooked!  The best rule is to never eat a mushroom if you find it growing wild.  Get your mushrooms from your greengrocer or the supermarket!

The fungi you can sometimes find on your body don’t always make you sick, they are usually just annoying.  Fungal infections are usually found on your skin, nails, hair – things like athletes foot which is an itchy rash that can be found between your toes or ringworm which is a scaly patch that can be found on your skin.  Other fungal infections can get to your internal organs, like your lungs and nervous system, which is much more serious.  Fungi like Aspergillus and Candida are often found in people who have a damaged immune system.  Aspergillus spores get into the body through the respiratory system (by breathing) and isn’t normally a problem.  If a person has a damaged immune system, the fungus can grow in their lungs and then use the blood stream to spread to other vital organs like the kidneys and brain.  In people who are very weak, it can be extremely serious.  Candida on the other hand is found in the gut of most healthy people and does not normally cause a problem.  If the person has a damaged immune system, it can make them very ill and cause a lot of problems to health. 

Fungi can’t make their own food, they get their food by taking nutrients from a ‘host’ – fungi are parasites.  Fungi are often seen to grow on trees and sometimes the fungus doesn’t do any harm to the tree.  Other fungi cause diseases like Dutch elm disease which can destroy whole populations of trees in a community or in a country!  Fungi also cause rusts and smuts on plants and was the cause of the potato famine in Ireland in the 1800’s.  The fungus Phytophthora infestans destroyed most of the potato crop in Ireland and about a million people starved to death.  Other people travelled to countries all over the world to escape the famine and this is the reason that countries like America and Australia have such large Irish populations today.

Of the million or so types of fungi on the earth, only a very few are dangerous to humans but it pays to be safe!  Remember to keep up your personal hygiene and to keep your environment clean (no damp towels hanging around your bedroom!).  The best defence against fungal attack is to keep your body fit and healthy!


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