It feels like there are fleas on me, there are not, any ideas on a fix?
September 24, 2019 8:12 AM   Subscribe

I grew up in a house where there'd be an occasional flea infestations due to climate, inside dogs, carpet, and it being in the preliminary stages of hoarder takeover. Parents would bug bomb while on vacation and it'd blow over. I recall what it felt like for arms/ankles to have fleas landing/fleeing (pun intended) and bites. Recently I get that same feeling and it's both triggering and somewhat worrisome because I don't know why and it's not infrequent. Any idea what's going on the physical or psychosomatic front?

Freewheeling random commentary and additional information that I feel might be relevant or useful.


-- We do have two short hair dogs but they are (through scheduled control measures such as frontline, expensive flea collars, occasional baths, short hair, and flea comb checks) kept flea free. We may see one or two fleas on them in a given month and the fleas are always sickly/dying/dead due to the collar or frontline I suppose.

-- They are mostly indoor dogs with little interaction with other doggos.

-- Dog #2 is a decent indicator of flea presence as she is highly allergic and will, in the matter of a few hours, make a bald spot as she scratches at even the smallest of flea populations, hence the strict engineered solutions we have in place.


-- We have a decently tame, small front yard. No overgrown woodlots if that matters.

-- Hardwood floors and tile throughout, no rugs or carpet at all, due to my allergy/asthma sensitivity and, well, bad experiences with carpet growing up. We vacuum the floor with our Dyson handheld a few times a week.

Symptoms/My Side:

-- Only occurs on exposed extremities, similar to flea memories.
-- No one else (wife, kids, visitors) reporting the symptoms.
-- No physical bites, I recall what those looked like.
-- No captured/seen insects and, yes, I would have snagged one by now per my experience.
-- I have plenty of body hair and do use fans in lieu of setting the AC lower, which can simulate the feeling I'm describing, but well, why is this hitting me so hard now I guess is the question?
-- I'm not on any OTC or other drugs that would cause this as a side effect.
--I've always been a bit sensitive to sensations, I definitely have misophonia as an example, however and my wife, who is a professional in the field but who could obviously never be my professional, says I'm maybe a bit on the Asperger side of things but super high functioning.
posted by RolandOfEld to Health & Fitness (17 answers total)
This is called formication. As you can see from the article, there are a number of possible causes; perhaps you'd want to rule some of them out?
posted by praemunire at 8:18 AM on September 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

It could be a number of things, like change in seasons or a seasonal allergy causing dryer, itchier skin (any other allergy symptoms)? Have you changed your soap, moisturizer, or cologne recently?

However, because it’s so strongly tied to a sense memory from your childhood, to me that suggests it might be psychosomatic. Any big life changes recently? Big changes in your family?
posted by sallybrown at 8:20 AM on September 24, 2019

I have this. Right down to "My childhood home was full of fleas" to "Now I get the itches" especially when I am stressed out. If you are not seeing bites, I would work on the other issues that can build up into formication. Remember just because something is psychosomatic doesn't mean that the feelings aren't real, it just might mean they have a different cause than the one you're associating with it. So, work on other sources of possible itching (look into soaps and laundry detergent) and think about whether you recently turned the heat on. Try some moisturizers just to give you an excuse to give your skin a once-over and note down if it's happening in any specific places in your house. Keep in mind that while this can be annoying the worst case scenario in most of this is that there is a non-dead flea in your house and that is a thing grown-ups can manage. Living at home as a kid was a situation you didn't have control over, but now there are remedies available to you. I know it's not a fun situation but it's one in which you can affect the outcome more readily.
posted by jessamyn at 8:27 AM on September 24, 2019 [12 favorites]

Helpful. Thanks.

From that article praemunire linked, a hot take or three:

1) That word seems to exactly specify the feeling.
2) I'm getting no pins and needles, just that tickle.
3) I'm not scratching due to this...well not much, certainly not breaking the skin...
4) I am a picker/fingernail/cuticle biter but have been improving on that front in recent years. Scabs are long-lived on me due to my failings there however. Nothing that would meet a DSM criteria however, not even close, just frustrating at times.
5) I am not in menopause (and never will be) nor am I undergoing withdrawal of any recreational or other drug. I am dieting (Keto, not my first time).

From sallybrown's reply:

A) I'm fairly agnostic on the grooming product side of things. I've been no-shampoo for 5 years or so and it's great. I use plain bar soap and normal wet shaving products on a every day or three basis. No changes and no sensitivity to changes in the past.
B) I do have allergies but those are exclusively respiratory/nasal.
C) Life stress... I am a bit more stressed than normal. Maybe more than a bit. This is concerning.


Thanks, I really, really appreciate the personal tie. This was harder to talk about than I want to admit because of, apparently, some shame and embarrassment so, yes, thanks, truly.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:32 AM on September 24, 2019 [7 favorites]

There are some types of mites that interact with human skin in this way, that you would not see with the naked eye. Deep-cleaning all the soft goods: cushions, pillows, drapes, rugs and mats, and places on your house where birds may congregate, can help. Heat, steam, borax or diotomaceous earth and vacuuming; throw everything you've got at it! Just want to posit there may be a physical cause, childhood experiences may have left you more sensitve than others to the signs of skin attacks, and it is addressable with elbow grease and SCIENCE! Good luck!
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 8:40 AM on September 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

I get the itches, often at night. Possible causes in my case:

Pet fur is irritating me. This seems to come and go and I may have a very, very mild allergy. But sometimes its very, very annoying.

My pyjamas / sheets have gone just slightly too long without washing and now my skin suddenly hates them and I'm itchy all over.

I haven't showered after being slightly hot or sweaty.

My skin is dry.

I suspect that something is actually tickling/ irritating you, and your brain is interpreting that feeling and feeling it as fleas based on experience. I grew up in a house with lots of spiders and I still sometimes think every tickle is a spider walking on me.
posted by stillnocturnal at 8:47 AM on September 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

This is a random thought but sometimes I get itchy skin when I go from showering with soft water to hard water, eg when traveling. I wonder if it's possible that something has changed about the water chemistry in your house lately? Maybe think about whether there's been a change in white deposits being left on glasses in the dishwasher or on the coffee pot, or how soaps lather, that kind of thing.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:49 AM on September 24, 2019

No changes in water hardness, we do have issues with that a bit but no changes per se.

Regarding bedding and pajamas, well, I've never been sensitive to that sort of thing before and we love our high quality linen sheets because, well, they're worth it.

I don't interact with pet fur or lay where the pets lay because allergy sensitivity.

I've never had dry skin issues before... I actually kind of hate lotion but could try it I guess.

I always shower after getting hot and sweaty since, well, being in Florida means when you get sweaty you're usually REALLY sweaty and not showering really isn't an option.

The idea that it is mites is pretty disconcerting but they'd have to be microscopic as I've never seen signs and I don't know what we could do short of steaming our entire furniture population and bathing our dogs on the daily. I just... can't even...
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:54 AM on September 24, 2019

I get this, usually I can trace it to dry skin or pet allergies (and I never had dry skin before my mid 30s). I like thick body butter kind of things or oils a lot better than lotion.

I agree with the idea that there is a physical cause and you're possibly more sensitive than usual to it and attributing it to bugs because of experience - I experience this more after getting a lot of tick/flea/mosquito/chigger bites for a while, and reading this question is making me notice it more right now.
posted by momus_window at 9:00 AM on September 24, 2019

I'm sorry ... I knew it might be disconcerting about mites! But the wikipedia article on formication seemed to completely discount this physical possibility.

I don't think the dogs have to go on a heightened schedule; I do think a big ol', all at once steam cleaning might help, pain in the ass though it may be, then yearly at the height of the season.

Just my opinion, and I have deep dust (mite) allergies so that is probably behind my thinking. But I have definately run into occasional something-or-other invisible bitey infestations when I lived more out in the country, and cleaning the enviroment as thoroughly as possible, plus maybe topical bug-repelling essential oil stuff, was the remedy.
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 9:09 AM on September 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

I've had this off and on with flies, mosquitoes, etc. and also with phantom calls (thigh feels like it's vibrating from phone notification even though phone is in the other room). The best way I've found to deal with it is to look at the area while it's itching or buzzing. If I can see there's nothing there, it helps the sensation quiet down.
posted by disconnect at 10:30 AM on September 24, 2019

i have sensory issues like this and for me the triggers can be from seasonal allergies, dry skin, and very specifically stress brought on by extremes of weather in the summer, like very high heat and humidity. but also the main one is that a real existing thing is actually touching me, which is Not Allowed. usually it's my own hair.
posted by poffin boffin at 11:08 AM on September 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

My sister and I call this the "fleabie jeebies." Any itching on the ankles or feet is likely to make us look for signs of flea bites. It's almost always just some random itchies, but it does remind us to keep a sharp eye out for any signs of fleas on the cats.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 11:11 AM on September 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

I have been losing a lot of postpartum hair lately and it sticks to my clothes and then pokes me in a way that feels like ants on the skin. Then I look for the cause (move my arm from touching my shirt where my hair is stuck) and it goes away... only to come back when i put my arm back down. Infuriating and gaslighting, seriously !

Anyways mentioning it just in case.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:15 AM on September 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

I totally had this for a full year after my apartment got infested with fleas. Even after we moved and the cats were inside only and there were no fleas....I still felt it. Same with getting lice. It took a long time for me not to interpret every scalp sensation as lice crawling. Ugh!

Extra moisturizer helps a lot. Most of my itches were dry skin, but ymmv. It helps me to just acknowledge the source of the immediate thought and talk myself down from catastrophizing.

But omg lingering bug itch is sooo real.
posted by ananci at 1:33 PM on September 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

I had this once or twice and it was psychosomatic -- I think it can be triggered by a cycle of hypervigilance where something happens that makes you think "bugs," and you start a feedback loop interpreting every sensation as bugs and kind of over-listening to your senses for more bug sensations to confirm the original suspicion, and possibly kind of magnifying whatever random sensory blips normally get screened out.

For me it eventually goes away given enough time and evidence that it's not real (collecting data points like other people in the house not feeling it, etc).
posted by space snail at 3:25 PM on September 24, 2019

I get this when I'm tired or stressed or unhealthy. Rule out typical causes for itchy skin, then treat the symptoms with corn starch and/or lotion(not together). Maybe substitute body wash for soap, as soap can be drying/irritating; I use lotion instead of soap in dry Maine winters. Maybe try a multivitamin with minerals, just in case
posted by theora55 at 10:13 AM on September 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

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