Last month we started a series called Top 5 Most Disturbing Things in Pest Control. We began with maggots at #5 and now in at #4, Delusory Parasitosis. This one is a bit of mouthful, but it is a very serious condition that we find ourselves faced with from time to time.
What Is It?
Delusory Parasitosis is a condition in which a person firmly believes that they are being infested by some sort of an insect or mite, while in reality this is not true. Most people have sensations of something crawling on them or unexplained bites, itching, or skin irritation. A healthy person’s normal response is to look at the area, see nothing there, and realize something else must be the issue. With delusory parasitosis, the person can’t accept that it’s nothing and becomes obsessed with getting whatever it is out of their skin or out of their house. They will spray their house over and over with insecticides, hire multiple pest control companies to do the same, go to multiple dermatologists and get various prescription lotions, self-treat with home remedies, boil clothes and sheets, or even move out of the house. Some will go as far as cutting themselves, which is obviously quite serious. When we get the call, and we do get at least 2 calls a year, it always starts out like this, “I have tried everything, no one knows what this is, you are my last hope!” Immediately our alarms go off, but we have to do our own due diligence to investigate the situation.
What Causes It?
The cause of delusory parasitosis is thought to be associated with an upset in brain chemistry. It is often associated with depression, stress, or social isolation. Use of cocaine or methamphetamine can also upset the brain chemistry and ignite delusory parasistosis. Middle aged, caucasian women are the most affected and a common theme that I have noticed in the cases I have dealt with was that the women had all recently lost a family member. In the last case, the client had taken in 3 foster children that were siblings, only to have them returned to their father after a few months. Not long after, she began finding “tiny black dots” burrowing in her skin and had “tried everything.”
To prove that they are not crazy, those suffering from delusory parasitosis, will often point out that everyone in the house is itching. The reality is that, like yawning, scratching is psychologically contagious. Even reading the words scratch, itch, or yawn can incite the same behaviour in others. I bet you have been scratching just from reading this, and you probably just yawned! Wait for it…
What Can We Do To Help?
In keeping with the principles of Integrated Pest Management, a pest control company should never treat a house unless they have identified the pest they are targeting. In addition to delusory parasitosis, we often get calls for mystery bites. This is different from delusory parasitosis in that the person does not think they are infested, but are having a skin reaction to something that may or may not be an insect, spider, or mite. To identify the pest problem we conduct visual inspections and put out sticky traps to catch whatever pest may be causing mystery bites. If we don’t find anything, we don’t treat. Occasionally, people claim they are being bitten my microscopic bugs. Here is the truth: ALL INSECTS AND MITES THAT BITE OR BOTHER HUMANS ARE VISIBLE TO THE NAKED EYE, EVEN DUST MITES. Often what causes the irritation is something all together different; static electricity, allergies, medication, or even stray fabric strands, the list goes on and on of potential causes.
Letting a client know that they might be suffering from delusory parasitosis is the hardest and most disturbing part for me. No amount of entomology education or training prepared me for a sobbing or enraged client begging me to just spray something. However, after listening to the client describe their problem and not finding any pests, it often becomes clear that the client could be suffering from delusory parasitosis. Telling them the truth is the only way to help them. I always repeat to them that they told me they had tried everything and then ask if they tried a psychologist? Have they experienced a great deal of stress lately or lose someone close to them? I also ask how relieved they would feel if their problem went away instantly? A psychologist could correctly identify and correct the problem easily with medication.