Delusional Infestation: Tens of Thousands of Americans Feel They Have Insects Crawling Under Their Skin

Tens of thousands of Americans could be dealing with a little-understood condition that feels like insects are burrowing under their skin, according to research.

Delusional infestation, formerly known as delusions parasitosis or Morgellons disease, is a divisive condition. Symptoms include a sensation comparable to insects crawling under the skin, rashes caused by itching, tiredness and difficulty concentration. Some of those with the condition report seeing fibers or stringy material on their skin.

However, there is not sufficient evidence to clarify whether it is a skin disorder or a psychological phenomenon. As such, some clinicians believe it should be treated like mental conditions with cognitive behavioral therapy, antidepressants and antipsychotic drugs, according to the Mayo Clinic. Others believe it could be caused by an infectious process in the skin.

Recently, two studies have emerged investigating the controversial condition.

Delusional infestation is a little-understood condition. Getty Images

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic and Aarhus University Hospital in Denmark are behind a study published in the journal JAMA Dermatology. They believe tens of thousands of Americans could have the condition. In the first population-based study into delusional infestation, researchers pinpointed 35 cases between 1976 to 2010 in Minnesota's Olmsted County, Science News reported. The scientists estimate between 27 out of every 100,000 people in the U.S. have delusional infestation.

Mayo Clinic dermatologist Dr. Mark Davis, who authored the study, told Science News: "It's like aliens have infested their skin." And when lab tests confirm a patient's body is not infested with insects, they may attempt to self-medicate in dangerous ways, he explained.

Mental disorders such as schizophrenia and dementia can trigger the condition, as well as amphetamine use, he said.

A separate paper in the Annals of the Academy of Medicine, Singapore detailed eight case studies of Chinese patients with delusional infestation, which lay bare the apparent distress of those who have the condition. The majority were female and over the age of 50. Clinicians treated the women with antipsychotics.

"Patients may resort to self-mutilation in an attempt to remove the 'parasites', such as obsessive nail-biting, or using a razor blade," the authors of the study wrote. In one case a woman doused her hair in kerosene and wounded her head to attempt to "destroy the insects." She would also wear a shower cap due to fears insects would enter scalp. Another cut off his nails and showed the remnants and skin tags to doctors as evidence of bugs in his body.

Further research is now needed to get to the bottom of the disorder. The authors of the JAMA Dermatology study stressed in their paper: "Knowledge of DI epidemiology is critical."