Formication is much less fun than it sounds. It’s the sensation that insects are crawling over and under the skin. Methamphetamine users are prone to this sensation, which explains why they pick at their skin. But formication – or delusional infestation (DI) – affects a lot more people than just meth users.
Ekbom Syndrome (ES)
Is also called delusional parasitosis. Or ectoparasitosis. Named after Karl Ekbom, the Swedish neurologist who published a paper on the condition in 1938. Whatever the name, the end result is the same: individuals believe they and their surroundings are infested by bugs nearly invisible to the naked eye. According to entomologists, more than 100,000 Americans suffer from Ekbom’s Syndrome.
Before meth, there was Traver
The above statistic comes from a paper by veterinarian entomologist Nancy C. Hinkle, of the University of Georgia, titled “Ekbom Syndrome: A Delusional Condition of Bugs in the Skin.” In it, Hinkle explores the symptomology of the condition. She cites the work of Jay Traver, a zoologist at the University of Massachusetts. In 1951, Traver published her decades-long ordeal to identify the insects infesting her scalp. Traver listed the following symptoms familiar to people with ES:
- She felt sensations of crawling, scratching and biting
- Treatment made the insects (Traver believed they were mites) more agitated
- She had to remove scabs to extract the insects
- Physicians were useless; they never found the mites
- By the time she published her account, she had the condition for 17 years (it lasted a total of 31 years, until her death)
Straight from the addict’s mouth
There are no bugs. They are delusional manifestations. In a 43-page paper published in Clinical Microbiology Reviews, Roland W. Freudenmann and Peter Lepping explore the history, the epidemiology, pathogenesis and diagnosis of the condition. According to the authors, patients like Traver are not content to describe their symptoms; they must have proof. Hence, the subdermal explorations. What these skin digs discover are not mites but pieces of skin, scabs, lint and other so-called desiccated remains of the burrowing fiends.
Traver did not use meth and the two cited papers focus more on the clinical aspects of the condition. A more contemporary look at formication is provided by the online forum Bluelight. Visitors post on a variety of topics, including drugs. In a thread titled “PLEASE URGENT! Tiny black bugs from meth use … possible?” the agitated poster, Exime5150, asks the community whether tiny black bugs that “look like small loose hairs” could result from meth use. A variety of responses explain that the meth is to blame and advise a good night’s sleep.
Treatment for formication
Hinkle notes individuals with the condition often self-medicate with disastrous results. Many resort to harsh cleaning solvents, chemicals, kerosene, even gasoline to clean the affected area. In addition to picking with fingers, the afflicted use tweezers, pins and other implements to root out the bugs. Freudenmann and Lepping suggest multimodal therapy in order to address all symptoms and underlying causes. The problem is most people with the condition consider it skin-related and if they do seek out treatment, they consult a dermatologist.
Sovereign Health Group is an industry leader in the treatment of substance abuse and mental health conditions. Our methamphetamine treatment center offers the latest in treatment for meth addiction. Call our 24/7 helpline for more information. When you’re ready, we’re here.
About the author
Darren Fraser is a content writer for Sovereign Health Group. He worked two and half years as reporter and researcher for The Yomiuri Shimbun until they realized he did not read, speak or write Japanese and fired him. Undeterred, he channels his love of research into unearthing stories that provide hope to those dealing with addiction and mental illness. Darren loves the Montreal Canadiens hockey club and horror films and would prefer to enjoy these from the comforts of his family’s farm in Quebec. For more information about this media, contact the author firstname.lastname@example.org.