Can Fungi Grow in Your Blood?

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Earlier this year, a 30-year-old man was rushed to the emergency centre, where doctors found fungi growing in the man’s bloodstream, which had consequently been spread around his body, resulting in multi-organ failure. The Fungus was identified as Psilocybe cubensis, more commonly known as Magic Mushrooms, and had infected the man’s blood alongside a Brevibacillus bacterial infection. As it turns out, the man had boiled a tea using the shrooms, as is often done, but had then injected the liquid into his veins, rather than the usual method of drinking or ingesting the fungus. The man was supposedly self-medicating symptoms of bipolar disorder and opioid dependence, after reading about the possible therapeutic effects of taking hallucinogens online. He did, however, survive the ordeal, but only after spending 22 days in the hospital, with 5 of those being in the ICU.

Before being admitted to hospital by concerned family members, the man showed symptoms of lethargy, nausea, diarrhoea, Jaundice (yellowing of the skin), disorientation, and Hematemesis (vomiting of blood), whilst once in the hospital the man was subject to respiratory failure and septic shock: sepsis is when the body releases its chemicals into the blood as a response to the presence of a pathogen, the effects are very serious; 1/3 of patients diagnosed with sepsis die. The drugs daptomycin (antibiotic for life-threatening infections), meropenem (antibiotic), and voriconazole (medication to treat invasive fungal infections) were also given for the man to take in the long-term. 

Apart from providing a warning about the hazards of taking drugs and self-treating illness, it might make us question just how common and dangerous it can be to have unwanted flora taking up residence inside of our bodies. You may be familiar with an old wives’ tale that if you eat the seeds of fruits, a fruit tree will start growing inside your stomach. However, this is simply superstition; the acidic environment of your stomach will destroy the seeds completely, and as for the seeds which are built to survive the gruelling digestive process, such as ones eaten and distributed via animal faeces, they are at no risk of germination until they reach the light.

But what if you swallow something down the wrong way? Now and then bizarre cases pop up in the news of people who have found something leafy growing inside their bodies. A report from 2010, for instance, saw a man from Massachusetts who had suffered emphysema and later a collapsed lung, be found to have a small 1.25 cm pea plant growing in one of his lungs, and the previous year of 2009, a biopsy of 28-year-old Russian man revealed a 5cm fir tree growing in a lung. There do remain critics of these intriguing cases, however, who dismiss these reports as hoaxes, with some believing that there should be many more instances of plants growing inside people given how often seeds are accidentally inhaled. Perhaps the weirdest case was when in 2014 a woman pushed a potato up her vagina, as a method of contraception (please do not do this), and after going to the hospital for complaints of abdominal pain, the doctor found that the potato inside had already sprung its roots. Whilst this is not such a mystery of placement, it does seem to imply that the germination process can be triggered inside a human body. 

The answer is yes, however, for the question of if trees can sprout from a dead body. The symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationship between fungi and trees, called mycorrhiza, is an exchange of minerals and sugars. Trees require minerals dissolved in water such as potassium, calcium and sodium, and for this, they use fungi which release these minerals by breaking down the fats and proteins of dead animals (or human corpses) with protease enzymes. In return, the trees provide the fungus with sugar from photosynthesis, as fungi itself cannot photosynthesise. In a strange parallel, several people claim that menstrual blood can be an effective fertiliser due to the nutrients it contains, although this is accompanied by the possibility of bacteria and other unknowns which may not be so healthy for a plant.

But, coming back to fungi, there is a multitude of healthy fungi living off our skin, one of the most common species is Malasszia, found predominantly in our nostrils and on the back of the head feeding on the fatty secretions from our skin.  A study from 2013 looking into the fungi on our skin, found that the foot and the heel of the foot are home to the greatest variety of fungi, likely due to the warm and moist conditions provided by wearing socks and shoes. There are also plenty of unwanted fungi species; the common of fungal infections being Athletes foot, Vaginal Yeast Infection, Jock Itch and Ringworm, but to have a fungal infection in the bloodstream, such as the 30-year man self-inflicted upon himself, is a very serious matter. A fungus is known as Candida, or Thrush, commonly infects area of the body such as the eyes, mouth, throat and nose where it grows and develops on the mucous membranes, but it can also enter the bloodstream, at which point the infection is called Invasive Candidiasis and causes Candidemia. 10% of patients admitted to hospital for blood infections are suffering from Candidemia. 

Although it is perhaps the last thing people want to hear during a worldwide pandemic, a new species of Candida called C. auris is actually on the rise. First reported in Japan 2009, it has been nicknamed the ‘superbug fungus’ due to its high transmissibility and resistance to multiple fungal drugs, although its ‘intrinsic virulency’ (capacity for harm) is supposedly no greater than when compared to another common Candida species C. albicans. However, since the first case in 2009, it has spread across to over 30 countries worldwide, and a calculated crude mortality rate of 39% of those who are infected. It is widely suggested that advances in medicine, increased access to dialysis, surgery, immunosuppressants, and changes in the dealings of patients in need of organ transplants, have increased the risk factors of candidal bloodstream infections and expanded the population percentage at risk of fungal infection. 

What can we do to lower our risks of fungal infection then? Good hygiene is the key course of prevention and would include good bodily hygiene, using clean clothes and towels, wearing more ‘breathable’ clothes and shoes, not sharing such personal items, frequently wiping down surfaces, and, of course, not injecting fungi into your bloodstream.

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Annabel Bourne

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