- Author: Dustin Blakey
You would think that training in plants would qualify a person to give advice on, say, gardening. Actually that’s true. I do know a lot about plants but many questions I get have nothing to do with gardening. Or plants.
On those cold days in winter when I wonder why I didn’t stick with that engineering degree, I can count on someone calling in experiencing what sounds like the plotline of a Stephen King novel: a quiet, single person who spends a lot of time at home is suddenly plagued by invisible biting insects with a taste…for human flesh!
What they are likely experiencing is a disorder called Eckbom’s syndrome, but everyone calls it delusory parasitosis. Delusory parasitosis was first described in 1937 by a Swedish neurologist who, as you probably already guessed, was named Dr. Eckbom. Basically victims see or feel imaginary bugs.
Because people with the disorder are otherwise rational, they usually seek in earnest a way to control the perceived infestation. This involves calling friends, exterminators, the health department, and eventually me.
Most complaints I've receivedover the years involve being “bitten” while at home walking across a carpet or rug, or while sitting on furniture. To affected people the bugs and biting seem real, and all the evidence in the world won’t convince them otherwise. Occasionally they come to me first, but more commonly I am about their sixth choice.
Arkansas was a lot more humid than here and people tended to stay inside and remain sedentary, so I received a lot of calls. The dryness here makes life tough on springtails which seem to get my clients started on the road of delusion. We also tend to get out of the house more here in the Eastern Sierra.
I probably end up with these delusional clients because nobody wants to be in the position to tell a person seeing things they’re nuts to their face. So they send them to me since I’m supposed to know all about insects.
I’ll get pieces of dried skin, lint, hairs, or scabs brought in envelopes or stuck onto tape. This is called the “matchbox sign” because I suppose in days of yore when matchboxes were commonplace, sufferers would bring in their imaginary pests in matchboxes. I’ve only seen a few matchboxes personally. I usually get their invisible friends delivered to me in a medicine vial or stuck on a piece of tape.
Some very unfortunate people even think they have parasites under the skin. Thankfully, these people often fail to make the insect-gardening-Extension connection. The under-the-skin perception is very common with meth users and is related to the physical effects of the drug on the body coupled with psychological problems that come with drug abuse.
People with the disorder do not see this as a medical problem, but an entomological one, so they often don’t see the doctor. Occasionally they do go in to seek relief from the itching. They otherwise seem rational.
My father-in-law is a psychiatrist, and it may surprise that you that I've had more contacts with people bothered by invisible insects than he’s seen his entire career. This is sad because delusional parasitosis can be medically treated. (See your doctor!)
Winter seems to increase the frequency of inquiries I get, which offers evidence that people really do go crazy from staying alone indoors too long. Sometimes the problem is even contagious. Seriously! I’ve seen couples where both people share the same delusion.
I’m told the thing to do for someone suffering from delusional parasitosis is to be kind, investigate and tell them you can’t find anything. The very worst thing to do is to agree with them. This will make the only problem worse. Occasionally I’m fast enough on my feet to figure out some way to convince them to go to a doctor, but not always.
Once I had a client's doctor say that he saw them, too. I seriously doubt he saw a 1/8" long, blue creature with a dozen legs and a single horn crawing on her skin. The fact that all her scabs were on her left side and she's right-handed should have been a warning.
If you or someone you know seems to be complaining about never-ending bug bites on their body from an unknown pest and no control seems to work (in fact it gets worse), the one to see may be a psychiatrist, not the Farm Advisor. I can confirm that someone has no insects on a piece of tape or in a jar, but I can’t otherwise solve the problem.
To learn more about this disease check out http://delusion.ucdavis.edu. But try not to scratch while reading it.
Of course, if you have a problem with real insects or mites, particularly in the garden, please contact the Master Gardener Helpline. They're ready to believe you.