Cases That Test Your Skills

Bugs on her skin—but nobody else sees them

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Ms. L, age 74, presents to the ED with multiple excoriations after attempting to kill bugs on and in her skin. Clinicians are unable to find any evidence of bugs. How can you best help her?



CASE Scratching, anxious, and hopeless

Ms. L, age 74, who is paraplegic and uses a wheelchair, presents to our hospital’s emergency department (ED) accompanied by staff from the nursing home where she resides. She reports that she can feel and see bugs crawling all over her skin, biting her, and burrowing into her body. She says that the bugs also stick to her clothes.

Ms. L experiences generalized pruritus with excoriations scattered over her upper and lower extremities and her trunk. She copes with the pruritus by scratching. She reports that the bugs are present throughout the day and are worse at night when she tries to go to bed. Nothing she does provides relief from the infestation. Earlier, at the nursing home, Ms. L had obtained a detergent powder and used it in an attempt to purge the bugs. She now has large swaths of irritated skin, mostly on her lower back and perineal region.

She says the bug infestation became unbearable 3 weeks ago, but she can’t identify any precipitants for her symptoms. Ms. L reports that the impact of the bugs on her daily activity, sleep, and quality of life is enormous. Despite her complaints, neither the nursing home staff nor the ED staff can find any evidence of bugs on Ms. L’s clothes or skin.

Because Ms. L resorted to such drastic measures in her attempt to rid her body of the bugs, she is considered a safety risk and is admitted to the psychiatric unit, although she vehemently denies any intention to harm herself.

On the psychiatric unit, Ms. L states that the infestation began approximately 2 years ago. She began to experience severe worsening of her symptoms a few weeks before presenting to the ED.

During evaluation, Ms. L is alert and oriented to person, place, and situation. She is also quite cooperative but guarded in describing her infestation. There is some degree of suspiciousness and paranoia with regards to her infestation; she is very sensitive to how the clinical staff respond to her condition. She appears worried, and exhibits anxiety, sadness, hopelessness, and tearfulness. Her thought process is goal-directed, but preoccupied by the bugs.

Continue to: The authors' observations


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