|Classification and external resources|
Delusional parasitosis, also known as Ekbom's syndrome, is a form of psychosis whose victims acquire a strong delusional belief that they are infested with parasites, whereas in reality no such parasites are present. Very often the imaginary parasites are reported as being "bugs" or insects crawling on or under the skin; in these cases the experience of the sensation known as formication may provide the basis for this belief.
The alternative name of Ekbom's syndrome derives from Swedish neurologist Karl Axel Ekbom, who published seminal accounts of the disease in 1937 and 1938. This term is also used interchangeably with Wittmaack-Ekbom syndrome, another name for restless legs syndrome (RLS). Although delusional parasitosis and RLS were both researched by Ekbom, and RLS sufferers sometimes describe some of their symptoms as if they have, for example, "ants in my veins", they are distinctly different disorders. RLS is a physical condition with physical causes, whereas delusional parasitosis is a false belief.
The false belief of delusional parasitosis stands in contrast to actual cases of parasitosis, such as scabies.
People with delusional parasitosis are likely to ask for help not from psychiatrists but from dermatologists, veterinarians, pest control specialists, or entomologists. Because delusional parasitosis is not at all well known to non-specialists, under those circumstances the condition often goes undiagnosed, or may be incorrectly diagnosed.
Delusional parasitosis is divided into primary, secondary functional and secondary organic groups.
In primary delusional parasitosis, the delusions comprise the entire disease entity, there is no additional deterioration of basic mental functioning or idiosyncratic thought processes. The parasitic delusions consist of a single delusional belief regarding some aspect of health. This is also referred to as "monosymptomatic hypochondriacal psychosis",:389 and sometimes as "true" delusional parasitosis. In the DSM-IV, this corresponds with "delusional disorder, somatic type".
Secondary organic delusional parasitosis occurs when the state of the patient is caused by a medical illness or substance (medical or recreational) use. In the DSM-IV this corresponds with "psychotic disorder due to general medical condition". Physical illnesses that can underlie secondary organic delusional parasitosis include: hypothyroidism, cancer, cerebrovascular disease, tuberculosis, neurological disorders, vitamin B12 deficiency, and diabetes mellitus. Any illness or medication for which formication is a symptom or side effect can become a trigger or underlying cause of delusional parasitosis.
Other physiological factors which can cause formication and thus can sometimes lead to this condition include: menopause (i.e. hormone withdrawal); allergies, and drug abuse, including but not limited to cocaine and methamphetamine (as in amphetamine psychosis). It appears that many of these physiological factors, as well as environmental factors such as airborne irritants, are capable of inducing a "crawling" sensation in otherwise healthy individuals, however some people become fixated on the sensation and its possible meaning, and this fixation may then develop into delusional parasitosis.
Details of delusional parasitosis vary among sufferers, but it is most commonly described as involving perceived parasites crawling upon or burrowing into the skin, sometimes accompanied by an actual physical sensation (known as formication). Sufferers may injure themselves in attempts to be rid of the "parasites". Some are able to induce the condition in others through suggestion, in which case the term folie à deux may be applicable.
Nearly any marking upon the skin, or small object or particle found on the person or his clothing, can be interpreted as evidence for the parasitic infestation, and sufferers commonly compulsively gather such "evidence" and then present it to medical professionals when seeking help. This presenting of "evidence" is known as "the matchbox sign" because the "evidence" is frequently presented in a small container, such as a matchbox.
A study conducted of 108 patients at the Mayo Clinic was published in Archives of Dermatology on May 16, 2011. The study failed to find evidence of skin infestation despite doing skin biopsies and examining specimens provided by the patients. The study, which was conducted between 2001 and 2007, concluded that the feeling of skin infestation was delusional parasitosis.
Treatment of secondary forms of delusional parasitosis are addressed by treating the primary associated psychological or physical condition. The primary form is treated much as other delusional disorders and schizophrenia. In the past, pimozide was the drug of choice when selecting from the typical antipsychotics. Currently, atypical antipsychotics such as olanzapine or risperidone are used as first line treatment.
However, it is also characteristic that sufferers will reject the diagnosis of delusional parasitosis by medical professionals, and very few are willing to be treated, despite demonstrable efficacy of treatment.
The term "Morgellons" was introduced by stay-at-home mother Mary Leitao in 2004 to describe a skin condition characterized by a range of cutaneous (skin) symptoms including crawling, biting, and stinging sensations; finding fibers on or under the skin; and persistent skin lesions (e.g., rashes or sores). A majority of health professionals, including most dermatologists, regard Morgellons as a manifestation of other known medical conditions, including delusional parasitosis and believe any fibers found are from textiles such as clothing. The Morgellons Research Foundation, a non-profit advocacy organization, believes that it is a new infectious disease that will be confirmed by future research. "Other health professionals don't acknowledge Morgellons disease or are reserving judgment until more is known about the condition". Separate, large-scale studies into the proposed diagnosis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Mayo Clinic failed to find an infectious cause of the symptoms and confirmed that Morgellons is a variant of delusional parasitosis. The term "delusional infestation" has been suggested to account for Morgellons' patients as well as standard delusional parasitosis patients.
In popular culture
In season 3 episode 12 of the television show The X-Files, Scully mentions this condition in conversation with Mulder.
In season 5 episode 7 of the television show House, Dr. Wilson diagnoses Dr. House as having delusional parasitosis.
The animated series The Simpsons makes reference to delusional parasitosis in the motto of the Springfield Psychiatric Center: "Because There May Not Be Bugs On You".
The Philip K. Dick novel A Scanner Darkly contains a character named Jerry Fabin who suffers from intense delusional parasitosis. This detail forms the partly humorous plot of the opening segment of the film adaptation of the story.
In the first issue of the comic book Hellblazer, John Constantine's friend believes he is experiencing delusion parasitosis as a result of being a junkie. (As it turns out, he really is covered in insects.)
In Neil Gaiman's The Sandman, Delirium inflicts a curse on a policeman, giving him delusional parasitosis.
In the Dark Skies episode “The Last Wave,” two characters hallucinate insects under their skin as a result of actually having alien bacteria in their bodies.
The sound novel Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni features a character who experienced delusional parasitosis and was driven to self-mutilation, believing maggots were mixed in with her blood and would try to crawl back inside her through the open wounds.
In Shutter Island Leonardo DiCaprio's late wife killed their kids because of depression and stating that she "felt bugs clicking against her skull".
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