by Jenny Lelwica Buttaccio
On the surface, it has all the makings of a medical drama episode on a mystery illness: unexplained skin lesions, a widespread set of symptoms impacting physical and mental health, and contested medical debates over its validity. In real life, it’s known as Morgellons disease, an illness that affects 3.65 in 100,000 people each year, according to research in the online, peer-reviewed medical journal PLOS One.
In other words, it’s quite rare by medical community standards, but it’s no less distressing or life-altering for those who endure it. And while the cause of Morgellons is a matter of hot debate, emerging research suggests ties to Lyme disease and common coinfections.
A Closer Look at Morgellons Disease
Morgellons often presents with puzzling dermatological symptoms. Patients describe a variety of unusual skin problems such as unexplained sores containing colored, thread-like structures or filaments, intense itching, and sensations of crawling or being stung by insects. Patients may also report other phenomena like flecks or particles emerging from the skin that resemble sand, seeds, or other tiny granules.
Currently, the cause of the illness remains unknown, and arguments about whether the disease is psychological or physical have ensued. Some healthcare professionals believe Morgellons is psychological — the result of a kind of delusion known as “delusional parasitosis.”
In a delusion such as this, patients may hold an unwavering belief they have been infested with parasites, fleas, worms, lice, or other types of organisms. The problem with this theory, however, is that Morgellons patients often have multi-systemic symptoms that parasites alone don’t explain such as fatigue, joint pain, fibromyalgia, and difficulty sleeping, as stated in a case report in the Annals of Dermatology.
Previously, some clinicians believed the filaments in the skin might have come from textile fibers or, worse, placed there by the patients themselves. However, a 2013 study sheds new light on the illness by evaluating colored filaments from tissue specimens gathered from the calluses of four female patients. The findings revealed the filaments weren’t comprised of textiles or synthetic materials at all. Instead, they were made up of substances in the body, including keratin, melanin, collagen, and other proteins.
Moreover, researchers discovered the presence of borrelia species of spirochetes in the participants’ tissue samples, indicating an infectious process might be one of the underlying mechanisms behind this illness. The multi-symptom illness overlaps with the symptoms of chronic Lyme disease and coinfections, but with only small-scale research on the topic, there are many layers yet to peel back.
“It bothers me on all the accounts that some physicians have blown off Morgellons patients or accused them of putting fibers into their tissues,” says Bill Rawls, MD, Medical Director of RawlsMD and Vital Plan. “When you look at how microbes like borrelia work and how they destroy collagen, it’s plausible that they are an underlying factor in this illness.”
In a 2016 study, researchers suggest the “dermopathy” (patches, spots, or lesions on the skin) of Morgellons is connected to tick-borne diseases, and they’ve discovered several species of borrelia in skin specimens: Borrelia burgdorferi (the predominant species causing Lyme disease), Borrelia garinii, Borrelia miyamotoi, and Borrelia hermsii.
“Morgellons may be a variant of Lyme disease that happens to affect the skin,” says Dr. Rawls. But it may develop in only a fraction of people who contract the tick-borne disease.
To date, there is no consensus on what causes Morgellons or why it affects some people and not others. Despite an association with borrelia, many health experts remain skeptical that the illness is brought about by an infection. Though Morgellons is a misunderstood and controversial illness, funding is needed for research, and awareness is of the utmost importance so that patients can get an accurate diagnosis.
Let’s explore some of the signs, symptoms, diagnostics, and treatment strategies for Morgellons.
Symptoms of Morgellons Disease
People with Morgellons can have a variety of symptoms, affecting multiple systems of the body. The symptoms include:
- Skin lesions of unknown origin
- Extreme itching
- Crawling sensations
- Colored, thread-like fibers coming out of the skin
- Muscle and joint pain
- Sleep problems
- Brain fog
- Memory issues
- Psychiatric problems, including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and delusions
Diagnosing Morgellons Disease
Morgellons can be difficult to diagnose, notes Dr. Rawls, especially if healthcare providers don’t know enough about the illness to look for it. The Charles E. Holman Morgellons Disease Foundation (CEHF), a nonprofit aimed at supporting awareness, education, and advocacy efforts, recommends seeing a Lyme-literate medical doctor (LLMD) to evaluate the presence of Lyme or other tick-borne diseases.
There isn’t a specific test to detect for Morgellons, but doctors may diagnose it if a person has slow or non-healing wounds, fibers in the lesions, or crawling or itching sensations of the skin. Skin samples may be tested for the presence of bacterial infections like Borrelia burgdorferi or Staphylococcus. Lyme specialists may also use testing from laboratories such as Igenex to confirm whether Lyme may be a factor in the illness.
Treatment of Morgellons Disease
There is no singular approach to the treatment of Morgellons that will work for everyone. Realistically, there’s a lot of trial and error to figure out what strategies will be most effective for the illness.
A good treatment approach focuses on comprehensive ways to improve multi-systemic symptoms and address pathogens such as borrelia and coinfections like bartonella and babesia. Treatment protocols may also include topical medications to address infections of skin lesions or referrals to mental health professionals if psychiatric manifestations of the illness occur.
Incorporating Herbal Therapy
Natural remedies might play a role in managing symptoms and helping you feel better as well. “Because borrelia may be a component of Morgellons disease, I think herbal therapy is an essential foundation to a recovery program,” says Dr. Rawls. Though there’s a lot we still don’t know about the illness, herbs suppress a variety of harmful microbes, balance the immune system, and improve energy — all of which will have a positive effect on symptoms.
Though herbs aren’t a proven method of treatment for Morgellons, they have a low risk for toxicity and side effects. So it might be worth discussing the benefits and risks with your healthcare provider to see if natural therapies could help restore your health. Some foundational herbs to explore include:
Cat’s claw is native to the Amazon region. The herb is a staple among Lyme disease protocols due to its antimicrobial qualities. It also contains immune-modulating properties to quiet an overactive immune system and reduce inflammation. It has historical use in alleviating the pain associated with arthritis, too.
Suggested dosage: 400-800 mg two to three times daily (inner bark standardized to 3% alkaloids or 10:1 concentrate inner bark is preferred). It is especially important to take this herb with food, as it is activated by stomach acid. If you take acid-blocking drugs, cat’s claw won’t have a significant impact on you.
Side effects: The herb is generally well tolerated, but occasional stomach upset has been reported.
Native to India, andrographis has antibacterial, antiviral, and antiparasitic properties to defend against a spectrum of microbes. The herb has immune-enhancing, cardioprotective, and liver-protective qualities. Like cat’s claw, andrographis is a staple among natural Lyme protocols.
Suggested dosage: 200-800 mg (extract standardized to 10-30% andrographolides) two to three times daily
Side effects: Approximately 1% of people who take andrographis develop an allergic reaction with whole-body hives and itching skin. This is a higher percentage than most other herbs. The reaction will resolve gradually over several weeks once the herb has been discontinued.
Berberine is an antimicrobial herb and helps to restore balance to the microbiome.
Suggested dosage: The dose will vary depending on the preparation used.
Side effects: In most cases, berberine is generally well tolerated. Side effects may include gastrointestinal discomfort and low blood pressure.
Garlic has been used for medicinal purposes since the beginning of recorded time. The active ingredient in garlic is called allicin, and it has antiprotozoal, antiviral, and antifungal properties. Also, it assists in supporting the immune system and balancing the flora of the microbiome.
Suggested dosage: 180-1200 mg of a stabilized allicin product two to three times daily (dosage is dependent on the garlic preparation used)
Side effects: Raw garlic may cause stomach upset, but stabilized allicin products are associated with few side effects and are generally well tolerated.
As a medicinal mushroom, reishi contains adaptogen properties and is antimicrobial and immune-modulating. The herb reduces inflammatory cytokines and supports the immune system’s ability to combat pathogens. Reishi supports the liver and heart as well.
Suggested dosage: 1-2 grams (1000-2000 mg) whole mushroom powder or 150-500 mg standardized extract (minimum 20% beta-glucans preferred) two to three times daily.
Side effects: Reishi tends to be well tolerated with rare side effects and no known toxicity.
As a multi-purpose herb, Chinese skullcap has antimicrobial properties, dampens cytokines, and supports immunity. It works synergistically with other herbal remedies to enhance their effectiveness. It also has naturally-occurring melatonin, which may help to induce sleep.
Suggested dosage: 400-1000 mg two to three times daily. Note that American skullcap does not offer the same antimicrobial properties and should not be substituted.
Side effects: Even at high doses, side effects are rare and often limited to gastrointestinal discomfort.
The following list provides further information about Morgellons and helpful organizations. (A special thank you to CEHF, who assisted in compiling these resources.)
- Charles E. Holman Morgellons Disease Foundation (CEHF): A nonprofit geared toward education, advocacy, and awareness of the illness
- BCA Clinic: A clinic in Germany specializing in the treatment of tick-borne diseases, including Morgellons
- Donovan Hair Clinic: A Canadian hair clinic led by dermatologist Jeff Donovan, MD, PhD, specializing in hair loss and Morgellons disease
- Morgellons: The Legitimization of a Disease: A book aimed at separating fact from fiction regarding the condition and serving as a resource to patients and caregivers
- Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences: Provides information and education and is advancing the knowledge of Morgellons through research
- Skin Deep: The Battle Over Morgellons: A documentary chronicling a nurse’s quest to discover the truth about the disease as she confronts skeptics in the medical community
“We don’t know that much about Morgellons yet, and our perception is that it’s not that common,” says Dr. Rawls. Therefore, he warns that many patients will likely see several doctors before finding one who is willing to investigate the root cause more thoroughly and try various treatment approaches.
“When physicians are confronted with something they don’t know, they have two choices: One is to look further into it. The other is to try to make things go away as fast as possible,” says Dr. Rawls. “I hope we can become the type of medical community who looks further into it and seeks to help Morgellons patients as best as we can.”
1. Delusional Parasitosis. Merck Manual website.
2. Latest Information. Charles E. Holman Morgellons Disease Foundation website. https://thecehf.org/
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4. Ohn J, Park SY, Moon J, Choe YS, Kim KH. Morgellons Disease. Ann Dermatol. 2017;29(2):223-225. doi:10.5021/ad.2017.29.2.223
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