Hallucinations are things that appear real to the person experiencing them but are actually just perceptions created by the mind. They aren’t dreams or nightmares. They occur while a person is awake.
While most hallucinations consist of imaginary things seen or heard, they can also be smelled (olfactory hallucinations), tasted (gustatory hallucinations), and felt (tactile hallucinations).
A tactile hallucination is the impression that something is touching you when, in fact, nothing is there.
Those who experience tactile hallucinations describe a variety of sensations. Common ones include:
- A feeling of having skin stretched over the head.
- Thinking snakes or bugs are crawling under the skin or on the body. This type of tactile hallucination is called formication.
- The sensation of being kissed or having sex.
- Feeling as if internal organs are moving.
- Having itching or burning skin.
Hallucinations of all kinds, including the tactile variety, arise from problems in brain function. Experts theorize that they stem from abnormal electrical activity in certain areas of the brain. That abnormal activity can be brought on by several factors, some of which are described here.
Illicit drug use
A category of drugs known as hallucinogens are thought to interfere with communication between the brain and the spinal cord, which, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, can result in users “experiencing rapid, intense emotional swings and seeing images, hearing sounds, and feeling sensations that seem real but are not.”
These drugs include LSD, PCP (angel dust), and mescaline. Other drugs, such as cocaine and ecstasy, can also produce tactile hallucinations.
Alcohol abuse or withdrawal
What experts call alcoholic hallucinosis — which usually takes the form of hearing voices but can also include tactile hallucinations — is a rare byproduct of chronic alcohol abuse.
Hallucinations, including those of the tactile variety, can also occur when a heavy drinker suddenly stops or severely limits their alcohol intake (called alcohol withdrawal intake and in severe cases, delirium tremens, aka, “the DTs”).
These tactile hallucinations can manifest as feelings of numbness or as burning or itching skin.
Certain medical conditions can produce tactile hallucinations. Parkinson’s disease (a condition marked by the malfunction and dying of nerve cells in the brain) and Lewy body dementia (a Parkinson’s-like illness) are two prominent ones.
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Some prescription medications to treat psychiatric problems, like schizophrenia, and neurological disorders, like Parkinson’s or epilepsy, can cause hallucinations. Changing medications or dosages can help address the problem.
Any kind of hallucination can be very frightening for the person experiencing it as well as for those around them. They can lead a person to do irrational or even dangerous things like, for instance, jumping from a bridge into water to put out a perceived fire on the skin.
What’s more, hallucinations should never be casually dismissed as being “all in someone’s head.” Hallucinations can have their root in serious medical issues that need evaluation and intervention.
Your doctor will first take a thorough medical history, asking about your medical past, current medications, sleep habits, drug and alcohol use, whether you’ve had any head trauma, when your symptoms started, and so on.
They may also order diagnostic testing such as blood work and scans — often a CT scan or MRI — to visualize electrical activity in the brain.
The first step in treating tactile hallucinations is to treat the condition that causes them. Those with mental illness, for example, may respond to antipsychotic drugs. Those with Parkinson’s may need to have prescriptions changed or dosages adjusted.
Research published in Industrial Psychiatry Journal notes that
If someone you know is having a hallucination, tactile or otherwise, don’t leave them alone. Be gentle and calm. Don’t argue about the realness of the hallucination. Try to comfort and distract by asking about the hallucination and then diverting attention away from it with music, TV, or another activity.
Mention all experiences to the person’s doctor.
While tactile hallucinations are less common than auditory and visual ones, they’re still a terrifying occurrence for many people who have mental illnesses and medical disorders.
Prescription medication and psychological counseling can help reduce or prevent the hallucinations and improve the quality of life for those who experience them.