Ergot poisoning is a sickness that can occur from eating rye and other grains that are infected with the ergot fungus. It transforms the grain into enlarged, hard, dark spur-like structures. It is most commonly found in rye and symptoms of the illness have been credited by some authorities for the Salem Witchcraft trials.
Poisoning caused by Ergot is referred to as ergotism. If you are suffering from ergotism you can have either convulsive and gangrenous ergotism.
The symptoms of convulsive ergotism are a nervous dysfunction. This can result in the victim twisting and contorting their body in pain, trembling and shaking, which simulate convulsions or fits. This is sometimes accompanied by muscle spasms, confusions, delusions and hallucinations, as well as a number of other symptoms.
With gangrenous ergotism, the patient may lose parts of their extremities, for examples toes, fingers, ear lobes or in cases that are more serious, arms and legs. Gangrene can occur from the blood vessels leading to the extremities being constricted. Because of the decrease in blood flow, infections occur in the extremities, accompanied by burning pain. This was called Saint Anthony’s fire in the middle ages. Once gangrene has set in the fingers, toes, etc. become mummified, and will eventually fall off. If the infected extremities are not removed, infection can spread further up the limbs that have been infected. It is common in grazing, farm animals.
To identify and prevent ergot.
- Look for dark-purple or black ergot bodies in the heads of the cereal or grass just before harvest.
- It grows best in damp cool conditions.
- Ergot bodies are larger than normal grain kernels, but can be smaller if the grain is a type of wheat.
- Deep-plow fields that have a severe ergot infestation to bury the ergot head. Ergot will not germinate if buried more than one inch deep.
- Mow wild and escaped grasses and pastures before they flower, to prevent ergot infections.
In the past it has been responsible for major outbreaks that have resulted in the deaths of large numbers of people. While modern medicine can treat ergotism, from the research that I have conducted, I believe that the only treatment option we would have, would be to avoid eating it.
If you wish to learn more about this fungus here is a link to a site post by the University of North Dakota, http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/pubs/plantsci/crops/pp551.pdf