The mysteries surrounding Morgellons make it prone to all sorts of conjecture, speculation and suspicion. Whether you’re sceptical about its legitimacy or convinced of its reality, the fact that we understand so little about the disorder doesn’t help to further either point of view. Those who suffer from Morgellons know all too well that it’s a very real and very debilitating disease; yet patients who approach their doctors with the issue are often written off as suffering from a mental disorder as opposed to a physical one. With so many physically manifesting symptoms, it’s hard to believe that doctors can conflate them all under a blanket mental health diagnosis; yet this is often the case, as Morgellons patients are routinely told they are suffering from a condition known as delusional parasitosis. Why exactly is this, and where do the two disorders overlap?
First of all, let’s look at each condition separately. Delusional parasitosis typically manifests as a crawling, itching or tingling sensation, which sufferers believe to be an infestation of parasites under their skin. These sensations can occur in any part of the body, and can even be accompanied by an actual physical sensation known as formication, which is essentially pins-and-needles. The condition is a mental disorder, but can easily be transferred to other vulnerable people by suggestion. The primary symptom is the delusion; patients aren’t just made uncomfortable by the sensations, but actually believe that there are parasites or bugs crawling and burrowing into their skin. Treatment comes in the form of psychiatric help and similar plans to other delusional disorders, although patients are often reluctant to accept the diagnosis.
Morgellons has an initial link with delusional parasitosis, as the first Morgellons patient on record complained of ‘bugs’. He was the two-year-old son of Mary Leitao, the woman who put a name on the disorder and is credited – for better or worse, depending on what you read – with bringing it into the public eye. Leitao’s son also presented with numerous sores on his body in conjunction with the complaints about bug-like sensation, causing his mother to take his condition seriously. When she brought him to a series of doctors, however, they could find nothing wrong with the child and the focus instead turned to Leitao herself, who was suspected of suffering from Munchausen by proxy. Thus, the link between mental disorders and Morgellons was born, although it is important to remember that Leitao herself never claimed to be suffering from the disease, and that delusional parasitosis is rarely found in children.
While we don’t have an exact timeline or account of the origins of Morgellons, in the years since its discovery in 2001 many other sufferers have come forward leading to a much better understanding of its various symptoms. Unlike delusional parasitosis, which consists of one dominant symptom, Morgellons has a host of various symptoms, one of which is completely unique to itself. The primary symptom is skin rashes, sores or lesions, which are often painful and cause intense itching. These are often combined with a sense of something moving and crawling under the skin, in a similar manner to delusional parasitosis.
The most bizarre symptom of Morgellons is undoubtedly the strange fibres that protrude and grow out of the lesions; while an exact explanation for these objects has yet to be fully defined, they are thought to be comprised of structural proteins, like those found in hair or nails. They appear in many forms, appearing to grow both out of and under the wounds and lesions, and are predominantly red, black, white or blue in colour. This bizarre and concerning symptom obviously causes huge emotional distress for patients, which is compounded by the doctors insistence that they are delusional. This often leads to anxiety and eventually depression, increasing the mental strain of the disorder. Other, less specific Morgellons symptoms include fatigue, difficulty concentrating and short-term memory loss.
So why do so many doctors focus on the ‘crawling sensation’ symptom, and label Morgellons as delusional parasitosis? Unfortunately, it’s largely because all the other symptoms can be fitted (in different degrees of neatness) under that umbrella; the lesions can be explained away as self-inflicted wounds from incessant itching, while the fibres are chalked up as fabric from clothing caught in the open lesions, noticed by obsessive minds. The fatigue and memory loss are easily written off as psychological collateral damage. Sufferers of Morgellons will know that this doesn’t at all square up with their symptoms, and is insufficient and useless to them as medical advice. Morgellons is most definitely a physical disorder and although we don’t exactly know the ins and outs of it at this stage, experts in the field are moving closer to a cause and subsequently a treatment.
One organisation that definitely doesn’t regard Morgellons as a different name for delusional parasitosis is the Charles E. Holman Foundation, a grassroots community dedicated to searching for the truth behind the disease and uncovering a cure. While there is still a long way to go in legitimising Morgellons in the wider medical community, sufferers should be pleased to know there are plenty of professionals out there who believe their condition is real, and are committed to discovering both a cause and a cure.