What Is Morgellons Disease?

Gain A Deeper Understanding Of This Illness

Hopeful woman with hands behind head in sunlight. Getty Images

At first glance, Morgellons disease (abbreviated "MD" and pronounced with a hard “g”) seems like something out of a science fiction movie. One school of thought about this condition is that it’s a perplexing skin disease affecting approximately 20,000 people annually. Patients report a crawling sensation under the skin or on the skin’s surface, rashes, and sores that have colored, threadlike filaments originating from them.

Other strange particles may arise from the skin as well, and they might look like seeds, sands, crystallized specks, or other inexplicable marks.

Unfortunately, the cause of the illness has perplexed the medical world for years and sparked debates as to the underlying factors involved in the disease process. Some experts believe Morgellons is linked to mental illness, where patients with MD experience a type of delusion called “delusional parasitosis,” or an individual’s belief that he or she has become infested with a parasitic organism such as spiders, mites, worms, or something else.

But the symptoms of Morgellons disease aren’t limited to the skin, and some patients who have been diagnosed with it have no history of psychiatric illnesses. In contrast, some physicians believe MD has a physical cause, but there are several discrepancies as to what the specific etiology may be. In addition to skin lesions, many patients experience a broad set of symptoms including debilitating fatigue, muscle and joint pain, cognitive problems, insomnia, and more—which suggests there may be more to the story.

Over the last few years, some key studies have been performed, which may finally shine a light on this complicated medical condition. Here, we examine some of the signs, symptoms, and current research on this topic.

If you’re visiting this page because you or your loved has been diagnosed with Morgellons disease, please know there’s hope on the horizon for a community of misunderstood patients.

A Further Look at Morgellons Disease

As stated above, one hallmark trait of MD is the presence of multi-colored fibers extruding from sores on a person’s body. According to the Mayo Clinic, the composition of these filaments remains unknown. Some experts believe the filaments are comprised of cotton particles from clothing or bandages that adhere to open wounds or are self-inflicted by the patient.

But a 2013 histological study in Clinical, Cosmetic, and Investigational Dermatology presents a different viewpoint as to the structure of these fibers. Researchers analyzed a series of blue and red filaments taken from the calluses of four women who had been diagnosed with MD; none of the women had a history of psychosis or delusions. The study indicates the mysterious filaments contained keratin, collagen, and other proteins found in the body—not cotton or other synthetic materials as previously reported.

Furthermore, newer studies support the idea that Morgellons disease is more than a skin disorder with a strong mental illness component. In fact, emerging evidence suggests MD is a multisystemic illness—meaning it affects multiple systems or organs of the body, and there may be an underlying infection triggering these symptoms.

In 2016, an article in the International Journal of General Medicine reported that “Borrelia spirochetes have repeatedly been detected in MD skin and tissue samples.” The primary species of Borrelia that researchers have encountered throughout multiple studies is called Borrelia Burgdorferi (Bb)—a spiral-shaped, bacterial infection transmitted through the bite of an infected tick. This is the same bacteria that’s known to cause Lyme disease. In fact, both Morgellons and Lyme patients share many of the same symptoms, but only a small subset of those who contract the tick-borne infection may develop MD.

At the present time, scientists aren’t sure why some people develop the Morgellons phenomenon and others don’t. But the article lists genetic background, hormonal influences, immune status, and the presence of additional infections as potential factors. While the recent information is encouraging to those suffering from MD, it’s worth mentioning that many medical experts still don't accept that this illness is due to an infectious component. The cause of the illness remains controversial. But there is one point nearly everyone can agree on—more research is needed to understand this life-altering, complex disease.

Signs and Symptoms

People who have been diagnosed with Morgellons disease can exhibit a vast array of symptoms. The non-profit group, The Charles E. Holman Morgellons Disease Foundation, exists to raise awareness and research funds for the illness and provides an expansive list of signs and symptoms. They include:

  • A strong itching sensation
  • The feeling that something is crawling under or on the skin
  • Slow-healing sores that spontaneously appear (The person hasn’t experienced an injury or trauma to the skin.)
  • Colored threads or filaments emerging from the skin
  • Other particles on or in the skin that look like seeds or granules
  • Debilitating fatigue
  • Changes in gastrointestinal function
  • Brain fog
  • Cognitive impairments like memory loss and difficulty concentrating
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Sleep issues
  • Psychiatric diagnoses such as depression, anxiety, panic disorder, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorders, delusions, and more

Treatment Options

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to treating MD, and, as a patient, you may need to assemble a team of doctors to meet your needs. The members of your treatment team might include a dermatologist, a psychiatrist, an expert in treating tick-borne infections, and a general practitioner. If you’re experiencing a decrease in strength or a reduced ability to participate in your daily activities, you may benefit from physical and occupational therapy services as well.

In addition to your medical team, consider joining a support group (either online or in-person). There’s tremendous value in knowing you’re not alone when it comes to facing medical challenges, and you can gather some worthwhile information and resources from group members who have walked this health journey longer than you.

A Word From Verywell

Anytime you receive a new diagnosis, especially one as complicated as Morgellons disease, it can deliver a hefty emotional and physical blow to you. But try your best to remain hopeful. Thankfully, there’s a growing interest in how to treat and manage MD. However, keep in mind it may require some time and effort to find the right healthcare professionals for your unique situation. Although it may require perseverance, the important thing for you to remember is that with appropriate medical intervention, you can experience improvement in your symptoms.

Sources:

Human Skin Parasites and & Delusional Parasitosis. Bohart Museum of Entomology website. http://delusion.ucdavis.edu/delusional.html

Middelveen MJ, Mayne PJ, Kahn DG, Stricker, RB. Characterization and evolution of dermal filaments from patients with Morgellons disease. Clinical, Cosmetic, and Investigational Dermatology. 2013; 6:1–21. doi: 10.2147/CCID.S39017

Middelveen MJ, Stricker RB. Morgellons disease: a filamentous borrelial dermatitis. International Journal of General Medicine. 2016; 9:349-354. Doi: 10.2147/IJGM.S116608

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