Approximately 100,000 Americans are afflicted with Ekbom Syndrome, a psychological disorder in which sufferers believe that they're infested with insects. Ekbom sufferers are reluctant to get psychological treatment, as they believe bugs are the cause of their discomfort. And when an entomologist suffers from Ekbom Syndrome, the result is one of the most skin-crawling scientific papers imaginable.

Vaughan Bell of Mind Hacks has brought to our attention the case of University of Massachusetts entomologist Jay Traver. In 1950, Traver thought her body was infected with dermatophagoides, or the common house dust mites. Dermatophagoides live in bedding, eat sloughed-off human skin cells, and can trigger allergies, but they don't parasitize humans. You can see why people would be somewhat perturbed by Traver's discovery.


In 1951, Traver published her dealings with the phantom insect attacks in Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington. Her paper โ€” "Unusual Scalp Dermatitis in Humans Caused by the Mite, Dermatophagoides (Acarina, epidermoptidae)" โ€” is an uncomfortably visceral account of Ekbom Syndrome:

Invasion of the eyes was not confined to the period immediately following the use of the mercuric iodide soap, but continued for many days thereafter, this invasion occurring mostly between midnight and 3 a.m. The victim of their attack would have fallen into a light sleep, when a sharp pin-prick-like sensation in one eye, followed by an immediate response on the part of the already badly swollen eye would drive sleep away quite effectively. The movements of a mite that had entered under the eyelid could be felt as it crawled slowly about, then began to 'dig in' at which moment the eye suddenly became even more swollen than before. An almost continuous flow of lachrymal secretion seemed to attract the mites and made vision difficult. At no time, however, was there evidence of the formation of pus in the affected eyes.

Invasion of the nostrils produced quite distressing symptoms, as of something crawling and scratching in the mucus membrane; ofthen this accompanied by a distinct irritation of the throat, trachea and bronchi. Early invasions of the ears seemed confined to the region of the pinna, in the folds of which the mites burrowed, producing the usual itching red papules. Their prresence [sic] in the ears was the cause of some concern on my part, as it is well known that certain species of mites may cause great damage in the ears of small animals. Apparently we may consider ourselves most fortunate that his particular mite did not choose to invade the external auditory meatus, from which location it might easily have pierced the eardrum. The difficulty of controlling such an infestation in the ear, had it occurred, is at once apparent, since as yet we have found no drug that is completely effective against the mites.


Later in the paper, Traver visits a dermatologist, who in turn recommends that she receive psychiatric treatment (Traver declines):

A dermatologist, recommended by a local physician, was apparently convinced without more than a very casual examination, that the patient's symptoms were largely imaginary, those that did exist having been caused by an ill-advised attempt on the part of the patient to rid herself of something that was not there. Not until three days after my visit to his office, however, did he tell me this. [...] After the third day in the hospital, he turned me over to a neurologist for treatment of my 'psychoneurotic' condition. The patient, however, succeeded in convincing the neurologist that she had no need of his services.

You can read more about Ekbom Syndrome in this recent paper by University of Georgia entomologist Nancy Hickle (NCBI).


[Photo via Jonathan Fox's Flickr]