If you are particularly squeamish, or prone to bouts of hypochondria, you may wish to stop reading this article here. You have been warned.
It's nothing at first: maybe an insect bite, or irritation from a different brand of laundry detergent. You ignore it, maybe scratch a bit, but try to put it out of your mind. Initially, it works. But the itch keeps coming back. And you keep wondering what causes it: ticks? Bedbugs? But you don't find anything. And it keeps getting worse.
By now, there's an obvious rash where it itches, so you're convinced that there's a definite cause. You go to the doctor, but he seems unconcerned: he prescribes you a topical cream and warns you not to scratch it further, but no more. By this point you're in constant irritation from the rash, and can't stop scratching. It feels like there's something living under your skin, and the rashes are starting to turn into lesions. The irritation and pain is affecting your sleep, and the biggest problem is the uncertainty of not knowing what's happening too you, and why every doctor you see seems to think it's all in your head.
And then, one morning, you find a fibre of some kind emerging from your skin, like it's been left there by something emerging from a pupa...
Morgellons, or Morgellons disease, is one of the odder conditions I've heard about in my occasional hobby of collecting medical trivia. The entirely fictional case above typifies the symptoms of the condition, and should make it pretty obvious how unpleasant it is for the sufferers. It's still relatively poorly documented, but case studies suggest that Morgellons, typified by symptoms including skin lesions, itching and crawling sensations and the appearance of fibres on the skin or in lesions, has no known cure. Sounds pretty scary, right?
The truth is, despite the best efforts of the medical community, there is no known cause of Morgellons. It's thought that the disease is entirely psychological, with skin conditions caused by repeated scratching, and the fibres are in fact from clothing that has been worked into the skin. Most doctors consider Morgellons a variant of delusional parasitosis, a mental condition where the subject becomes convinced he is harbouring parasites. The standard medical treatment of Morgellons is therefore usually some form of psychiatric medicine, such as anti-psychotic drugs. Many Morgellons sufferers refute this suggestion, and a sizeable online community has developed, complete with a number of charitable organisations, and an annual conference. Altenative causes suggested for Morgellons include nanotechnology, allergies, or some kind of unknown parasite.
There have been several studies of Morgellons sufferers, but no evidence of any infectious condition has been found. The results of the most comprehensive study, an investigation of the symptoms of Morgellons in 115 sufferers led by the CDC, concluded "No common underlying medical condition or infectious source was identified, similar to more commonly recognized conditions such as delusional infestation."
What's interesting about Morgellons, apart from the creepy nature of the disease, is that it seems to be spread largely by the internet. The disease didn't exist until 2002, when a biology graduate and housewife named Mary Leitao reported the symptoms of Morgellons in her son. Despite intensive examination by a number of doctors, no clear diagnosis was made, and it was suggested that Mary might have Munchausen's by proxy. Despite this, she named the disease Morgellons after a similar sounding but unrelated 17th century disease mentioned in a monograph by Thomas Browne and founded the Morgellons Research Foundation, or MRF, an organisation dedicated to "raising awareness" of the disease. Since then, many thousands of cases have apparently been recorded, leading some to suggest that simply giving a name to a collection of related symptoms has increased the spread of the condition by supporting the delusions of people with Morgellons.