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Delusory Parasitosis and Pest Control

Woman scratching ankle
Don't apply an insecticide if your client complains of bites but you find no evidence of pests.
Photo © Pinto & Associates

How to Evaluate Mystery Bugs

Anyone who has worked for long in pest control has faced customers who insisted that pests were biting when no pests could be found. Such a customer usually demands treatment. The treatment doesn't work or works only briefly. And the customer demands another treatment...and then another, until you feel frustrated and guilty, since you suspect you shouldn't have treated in the first place.

What should you do if your customer complains of biting pests, but you cannot find any?

Do not apply an insecticide, and do not fake an insecticide application with plain water. Unless you already have a company policy to follow, technicians probably should contact their supervisors for guidance.

There are five possibilities for mystery bugs:

1. You missed a real infestation.
In perhaps one case in ten, pests will be the cause of the problem. You will simply have overlooked them. Human itch mites (scabies), lice, fleas, rodent mites, and bird mites are easily missed.
2. Your customer is being bitten somewhere else.
The bites of certain pests may not be noticed until hours or even days after they occur. Your customer may be being bitten by chiggers or mosquitoes outdoors, perhaps on the weekend, and not noticing the bites until later.
3. Your customer has a skin condition or a medical condition causing skin problems.
Certain skin disorders can feel just like insect or mite bites. Allergies can result in dermatitis and hives. Ringworm, hookworm, athlete's foot, staph infection, and pinworm may cause itching and rashes identical to those from bug bites. A dermatologist can determine if your customer has any of these conditions. Medical conditions that also cause similar sensations include certain skin cancers, vitamin or other deficiencies in diet, diabetes, cerebrovascular disease, and hypothyroidism. Also, certain prescribed or illicit drugs, especially amphetamines and cocaine, can be the problem.
4. The "bites" are caused by environmental conditions.
Mysterious bites from invisible bugs are not uncommon in rooms with lots of paper, electrical equipment, fibers, and static. Static electricity can cause particles of carpet fibers, paper splinters, or fiberglass fibers to jump onto arms and legs. The particles feel like little "pinpricks" and cause irritations that feel and look just like bug bites. Similar problems can be caused by irritating chemicals (formaldehyde, resins, etc.) released into the air from insulation, carpets, and construction materials. An industrial hygienist can identify environmental conditions that might cause "bites" and skin irritation. See Dealing with Paper Mites, Cable Mites, and Other Mystery Bugs in Offices.
5. Classic delusions of parasitosis.
The mind is very powerful. It can raise or lower body temperature, slow or speed heart rate, create or block pain. The mind can also generate realistic biting and crawling sensations, itching and other discomforts, precisely like those caused by pests. See Pest Control's Role in Classic Delusions of Parasitosis.


Dealing with "Paper Mites," "Cable Mites," and Other Mystery Bugs in Offices

Pest Control's Role in Classic Delusions of Parasitosis

For a PDF file of a recent (10/22/06) article in Techletter, click Inspection Sheet—Delusory Parasitosis


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