Causes and Treatment of
Bed Bugs Mental Illness

"A recent NYU study indicates that a bed bugs mental illness related problems are  real.  An actual infestation or the chance that an infestation will occur can act as a trigger in individuals that already have a mental illness. It is not a cause of psychosis or mental illness, but a trigger. Patients report that bed bugs created stressors that can bring out a mental illness along with feelings of isolation, depression and hopelessness. In others, the belief that they have bed bugs or other insects crawling on their body can lead to a condition called delusory parasitosis, with the specific diagnosis often referred to as Ekbom Syndrome."  


Bed Bugs Mental Illness Trigger

In a new study published by the New York University Medical Center, it was reported that bed bugs can cause the type of stress which can trigger latent or a worsening of a pre-existing mental illness.

Bed bugs themselves bring on a psychological response in people.  There is a social stigma among friends and family who to not want the infestation spreading to them.  In apartments in particular, where bed bugs can spread from unit to unit, individuals suffering from the problem quickly become outcasts.  The study refers to this as social isolation.  

Those suffering from a bed bug infestation suffer from stress related to the high cost of treatment, the inability to stop an infestation, not to mention emotions such as hopelessness and depression.  

In some individuals in the study, mental health related symptoms subsided after the bed bug infestation was treated.  In one case, symptoms returned when the infestation returned.

Bed Bugs Mental Illness and Paranoia

Delusory Parasitosis is the specific condition where a patient will complain of feeling insects on the body, when in fact, none exist. It is a common condition where an individual will even go so far as to call in an exterminator, when in fact, none is needed.  The specific condition is called Ekbom syndrome (ES), a condition that effects approximately 100,000 people in the United States.

It is not unusual to believe that insects are crawling on the skin, it is a sensation that happens to most of us at some time.  It is referred to as being "delusory" when there are no insects involved and that the individual believes that there are no other explanations for the problem. 

This bed bugs mental illness condition usually occurs in older female adults.  Associated behaviors include quitting work, throwing out or destroying furniture, abandoning homes, obsessive cleaning, over use of pesticides and the use of home remedies to remove insects.

When doctors are first approached with a description of a bed bugs mental illness such as insects under the skin, they assume a problem is scabies, since this involves microscopic mites burrowing under the first layer of skin. 

Patients are often tempted to scratch a skin itch triggered by the belief that an insect is present, introducing infection into the skin and an actual skin problem.  

ekbom syndrome
Scabs on the arms of an Ekbom Syndrome patient that used tweezers to remove bugs that did not exist from the skin
Source: Curr Psychiatry Rep

The first step in delusory parasitosis is to eliminate possible "real" causes of the itchy skin condition.  This can include physiological causes (allergy, nutrition problem, environmental allergies, contact dermatitis), disease, medications (most common medications list skin irritation as a side effect), as well as psychological causes.

There can be many psychological triggers for skin itch or sensations including self touching, skin scratching (form of self assurance), anxiety, tension, stress, and depression.  Being tired can also lead to  skin itch.  Feelings of loneliness can also lead to the skin problem.  Living with someone that scratches can also cause you to scratch, as it is a behavior that is highly contagious.

Delusory Parasitosis Treatment

As indicated above, there are so many causes for the condition that it is important to eliminate those that are not psychological first.  This includes calling in an exterminator, and reviewing the use of over the counter and prescribed medications and herbal remedies.

Once these are eliminated, doctors can use a variety of medications to treat the syndrome.  Patients are often treated in the dermatology department, to convince them that their skin issue is being addressed.  Specific medications are prescribed to address stress and anxiety.  When patients start taking the medication, often, they stop obsessing over having an infestation.  They continue to believe that the infestation was real, but are willing to believe that it has now been eliminated.  Many patients on medications are able to resume functioning in an normal life.

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References Bed Bugs Mental Illness:

Crains New York

Delusory Parasitosis
Nancy C. Hinkle

Ekbom Syndrome: A Delusional Condition of "Bugs in the Skin"
Nancy C. Hinkle




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