Formication is a symptom where you hallucinate the feeling of insects crawling in, on or underneath your skin. This symptom has many possible causes, including mental health disorders, medical conditions and more. This symptom is often treatable, with available treatments depending on the cause and other factors.
Formication is a specific type of hallucination that feels like insects crawling in, on or underneath your skin. The name “formication” comes from the word “formica,” which is the Latin word for “ant.”
Certain areas in your brain work cooperatively to process signals from your tactile sense (informally known as your sense of touch). Tactile hallucinations are when those brain areas act like they’re processing signals from your body even though there aren’t any such signals.
Because your brain is acting like its receiving signals, these hallucinations feel completely real. A person having them may struggle to tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not. People who experience this hallucination often feel an immediate — and even uncontrollable — urge to scratch or pick at the area of skin affected. This often leads to skin-picking or causing injuries to the skin and tissues underneath.
There are a few main ways that formication happens:
Prescription and recreational drugs are among the most common causes of formication. Withdrawal from drug misuse or alcohol use can also cause formication. The most common drugs that can cause this include:
Formication can happen with any of the above drugs. It can also happen if a person develops a dependence on a drug and then stops taking it, causing withdrawal.
Most mental health disorders where formication is possible involve a condition called psychosis. This means a person “disconnects” from reality. This disconnection happens in two ways:
Mental health conditions that can involve formication include:
Neurologic conditions (which specifically affect your brain or nervous system) can cause formication. Examples include:
Many conditions that affect your systems in your body and brain can cause formication. Some examples include:
Treating formication can take many forms, depending on why it happened.
Because there are so many potential ways to treat formication, your healthcare provider is the best person to tell you the possible treatment options. They can offer you options based on your condition(s), health history and other factors.
Formication isn’t a symptom you should try to treat at home, as it takes a trained healthcare provider to determine what’s causing it. You should also seek medical attention if you have this symptom unexpectedly, as this symptom can happen with certain dangerous conditions like stroke or drug overdoses. You should also contact a healthcare provider if this symptom could have a connection with a prescribed medication you take.
Because it happens unpredictably and with so many possible conditions, there’s no way to prevent formication entirely. The only ways you can reduce your risk of developing it are:
You should call a healthcare provider if you develop formication after starting a new medication or if you develop it after diagnosis with one of the conditions listed above. You should seek emergency medical care if you develop formication in connection with symptoms of a stroke or any kind of drug overdose.
The most common symptoms of a stimulant drug overdose are:
To spot the symptoms of a stroke, remember to think FAST.
Because people with psychosis have trouble telling the difference between what’s real and what isn’t, they often can’t recognize or understand that they have these symptoms or a mental health condition. Commonly, they’ll dismiss or resist suggestions that they get care because they don’t believe anything is wrong with them. That’s why psychosis can be a source of frustration or fear for someone with these symptoms or their loved ones.
If you notice a loved one showing signs of a psychotic condition, you can try to help them by doing the following:
People with formication with schizophrenia or other psychotic disorders may have an increased risk of self-harm and suicide. You should go to the ER or call 988 or 911 (or your local emergency services number) if you have thoughts about harming yourself, including thoughts of suicide or about harming others. You should also seek immediate help if you suspect someone you know is in imminent danger of harming themselves.
To get help in these situations, you can call any of the following:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Formication is a symptom where you hallucinate the feeling of insects crawling in, on or under your skin. This symptom can be very upsetting or disturbing, leading to other issues like self-injury from scratching or trying to get the insects out from under or inside of your skin. This symptom can happen for many reasons, many of which are treatable.
Because this symptom can happen with dangerous or life-threatening conditions, it’s a good idea to talk to a healthcare provider or get medical attention as soon as possible. When this symptom happens with certain mental health conditions, don’t try to convince a person that what they feel isn’t real. Instead, offer them help in figuring out what’s causing this symptom. That can lead them to medical professionals who can diagnose and treat formication effectively, putting an end to this symptom.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 08/09/2022.
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