Morgellons disease (MD) is a rare condition that involves fibers appearing underneath the skin or emerging from slow-healing skin sores. People with MD often report feeling stinging, crawling, or burning sensations on their skin.

These symptoms can be painful and long lasting, affecting quality of life. But the condition is controversial. While some doctors and scientists believe MD to be infection-based, others think it may be purely psychological.

Read on to learn more about MD.

MD is still a rather mysterious and poorly characterized condition. Because of this, there are limited studies on who exactly gets MD and if there are any risk factors associated with it.

In response to the lack of information on MD at the time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducted a population-based study between 2006 and 2008. The goal was to better characterize MD as a condition and learn more about the people who develop it.

The findings of this study were published in 2012 in the scientific journal PLoS One. Researchers were able to identify 115 individuals with self-reported MD within an area of Northern California.

Of this population, people reporting MD were more likely to be:

  • female
  • aged in their early to mid 50’s
  • white

Study participants also frequently reported experiencing chronic fatigue. Over half of them (54 percent) rated their overall health as fair to poor.

Additionally, of the 40 people that completed a psychiatric assessment, 63 percent were found to have clinically significant somatic concerns. This is when physical symptoms cause significant worry or distress. Clinically significant depression was the next most common finding (11 percent).

The primary symptoms of MD are multicolored fibers appearing under the skin or emerging from sores that are slow to heal. Because the fibers can be red, green, blue, white, or black, they may look like microscopic fibers from clothing.

Another common symptom is the feeling of burning, stinging, or crawling on the skin. Additional symptoms of MD include:

The lack of understanding about MD has led to controversy around the condition. Both psychological and infectious causes have been proposed. The fibers themselves are also controversial.

MD fibers

Some believe that the microscopic fibers in MD are produced by the body. But certain research indicates otherwise.

The 2012 CDC study analyzed 23 fiber or material samples collected from 12 study participants. It found that they were mostly made of superficial skin or from cellulose, which is a component of cotton fibers found in clothing. Dyes were detected in some samples as well.

A 2016 case study used an electron microscope to compare fibers collected from a person with MD to fibers collected around their apartment, like human hair, pet hair, or plastic fibers. In this case, the fibers in the MD lesions were actually found to be from the environment and not the body.

Meanwhile, a 2018 case study reported that the fibers themselves were inorganic and mixed in with keratin, a protein that’s important to the structure of skin. Inorganic means that a material doesn’t come from a living thing.

MD causes: psychological

MD has been poorly understood since it was first identified and named in the 1600s.

The childhood skin conditions called “the Morgellons” involved hairs or worms projecting from the skin, sparking debate about their origin. Both in the past and currently, some people with MD have believed that their skin was infested by parasites.

This led to the condition being labeled “delusional parasitosis” in 1946 and the widespread belief that MD is a delusional disorder. You may also see it referred to as a type of delusional infestation. Indeed, many people reporting MD have a history of mental health conditions.

A 2012 study evaluated 147 individuals who presented at the Mayo Clinic for diagnosis and treatment of a reported infestation. Of these, 20 percent reported having fibers on or in their skin. A retrospective analysis found that 81 percent of people included in the study had a history of psychological conditions.

A smaller 2017 study included 35 people with MD at the Royal London Hospital. Researchers found that:

  • Co-occurring psychological conditions were common, with 48.2 percent and 25.7 percent of participants having depression or anxiety, respectively.
  • Current or past substance misuse was reported in 14 percent of participants.
  • Forty percent of participants showed significant improvement when a treatment plan that focused both on treating the skin lesions as well as addressing mental health was used.

Overall, it appears that there’s a link between MD and mental health. But additional, larger-scale studies are needed to further characterize the nature of this link.

MD causes: infectious

Another idea is that MD occurs as an effect of an infection. Most often, tick-borne infections like Lyme disease have been associated with MD.

But a 2021 review of MD research notes that most of the studies published on an infectious cause of MD were published by the same group of authors and that they sometimes reuse participants across their studies. Further, one researcher in this group has been previously accused of scientific misconduct.

Outside of studies from this research group, evidence of an infectious cause of MD is rather scarce. Indeed, the 2012 CDC study was unable to find evidence of an infectious cause within their study population.

One 2021 case study reported MD associated with recent exposure to a tick bite. But blood tests for Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, came back negative. Other case studies of people with MD have also found no evidence of B. burgdorferi infection.

Overall, controversy around the MD is ongoing. Additional research is necessary to determine the cause of MD well as the most optimal ways to treat it.

Suitable, effective treatment options for MD are still unknown. The controversy and lack of understanding around the disease can also make it difficult to get treatment.

If your doctor thinks MD is caused by an infection, they may give you antibiotics and ointments to reduce itching. Since many people with MD have anxiety or depression as well, your treatment may also include mental health medications or counseling.

On the other hand, if your doctor believes the condition is related to a mental health issue, they’ll likely recommend psychiatric medications or therapy.

Research has suggested that a holistic approach that treats both the skin disease and your mental health may have positive results.

For the best outcome, it’s important to establish a strong, long-term relationship with a doctor who listens to your concerns.

Home remedies

Currently, there are no standard treatments or products known to cure MD. You can find many home remedies for MD online, but they may not be safe or effective.

If you’re considering trying a treatment you found on your own, it’s best to research it and talk with your doctor first.

People with skin conditions, including MD, may often pick at their skin. Repeated picking can cause or worsen sores and sometimes lead to an infection.

Untreated infections can potentially develop into sepsis. This medical emergency can result in organ failure and death if it isn’t treated.

Many people with MD also have depression, anxiety, or other mental health disorders. Still, more research is needed to determine the connection between these conditions.

Researchers and doctors often disagree about MD, and there’s still a lot to discover about the disease. The controversy and limited understanding of the condition can make it especially hard to cope with it.

It can be helpful connect and share information with others who also have MD. Support groups and other resources can help you stay up to date on current research about MD, give you advice on how to manage it, and provide a community of people with similar experiences.

Support groups may be online or in-person, and a couple of examples include:

Talking with others who have MD may help you better explain the disease to your family, friends, and doctor. You may also learn new ways to manage your symptoms and to advocate for yourself to get the care you need.