- Ergotism could be called a "cereal killer" for its cause, ergot, comes from cereals such as rye and wheat and is quite capable of killing someone. A fungus (Claviceps purpurea) that contaminates rye and wheat produces substances (alkaloids) termed ergotamines. Ergotamines constrict blood vessels and cause the muscle of the uterus to contract. They have been much used and been very useful for the treatment of migraine. They have also been used and misused as abortifacients (agents of abortion). In excess, however, ergotamines can cause symptoms such as hallucinations, severe gastrointestinal upset, a type of dry gangrene, and a painful burning sensation in the limbs and extremities. Chronic ergot poisoning (ergotism) was rife during the Middle Ages due to the consumption of contaminated rye. Because of the burning pain, it was known as "ignis sacer" (holy fire), "ignis infernalis" (hell's fire) and St. Anthony's fire. For more about this fascinating disease, see our article on St. Anthony's Fire — Ergotism .
* * *Poisoning by a toxic substance contained in the sclerotia of the fungus, Claviceps purpura, growing on rye grass; characterized by necrosis of the extremities (gangrene) due to contraction of the peripheral vascular bed. SEE ALSO: ergot poisoning. SYN: Saint Anthony fire (1).
* * *er·got·ism 'ər-gət-.iz-əm n a toxic condition produced by eating grain, grain products (as rye bread), or grasses infected with ergot fungus or by chronic excessive use of an ergot drug
* * *n.poisoning caused by eating rye infected with the fungus ergot. The chief symptom is gangrene of the fingers and toes, with diarrhoea and vomiting, nausea, and headache. In the Middle Ages the disease was known as St Anthony's fire, because of the inflamed appearance of the tissues afflicted with gangrene and the belief that a pilgrimage to St Anthony's tomb would result in cure.
* * *er·go·tism (urґgo-tiz-əm) poisoning from excessive or misdirected medicinal use of ergot, or from eating ergotized grain; it is marked by cerebrospinal symptoms, spasms, cramps, and sometimes a kind of dry gangrene. Called also ergot poisoning and ergotoxicosis.
Medical dictionary. 2011.