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02-02-2012 | Article

Mystery skin disease ‘not contagious’

Abstract

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MedWire News: A panel of US medical experts has completed its review into a mysterious skin condition commonly referred to as "Morgellons" and found no evidence that it is contagious or caused by an infectious disease.

"We saw a growing number of people complaining about these unusual symptoms, and as a public health agency we felt the need to see what was going on," said Daniel Rutz, spokesperson for the Centers for Disease and Prevention (CDC), which funded the research. "It was important to rule out an infectious cause because a lot of people were concerned about transmission."

Morgellons is an unexplained and debilitating condition that has recently emerged as a public health concern. People with the disease typically have lesions on their skin that contain fibers, threads, or other foreign material.

Sufferers also report sensations of crawling, biting, or stinging, and some patients also experience tiredness, mental confusion, joint pain, and changes in vision.

Medical experts have so far been unable to find a cause of the condition, leading some Morgellons patients to be given a psychiatric diagnosis, such as "delusional infestation" (more commonly seen in people with schizophrenia).

To investigate further, experts at the CDC studied 109 patients who believed that they had Morgellons.

The patients all said they had experienced fibers or materials emerging from their skin accompanied by skin lesions and/or disturbing skin sensations. Three-quarters of the patients were women and the same proportion was White.

The researchers interviewed each of the patients about their symptoms, lifestyle, medical, and psychiatric history, and analyzed blood and skin samples.

The study's key finding was that none of the skin lesions contained parasites, mycobacteria, or other living creatures. Instead, most material found in the patients' skin was composed of cellulose, suggesting it came from cotton clothing.

Interestingly, around half of the patients had a skin condition called "solar elastosis," or a build-up of elastic tissue within the skin, which is caused by prolonged exposure to sunlight. Meanwhile, skin lesions were typical of those caused by insect bites and/or repeated scratching.

"These sores appear often to be the result of people picking at themselves, as they would if they had a chronic irritation that couldn't be resolved any other way," said Rutz, adding that fibers likely slough off clothes and become encrusted in the healing wounds.

The researchers also found that around one in six of the patients showed signs of mental impairment while nearly two-thirds had physical illnesses; importantly, half were found to have taken illegal drugs and four out of five reported either recreational or occupational use of solvents.

"No common underlying medical condition or infectious source was identified, similar to more commonly recognized conditions such as delusional infestation," the researchers conclude.

The full study report is published in PLoS ONE.

MedWire (http://www.medwire-news.md/) is an independent clinical news service provided by Springer Healthcare Limited. © Springer Healthcare Ltd; 2012

By Joanna Lyford