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Pinprick-like biting sensations, usually on exposed skin and often producing inflammations that resemble insect bites, can be a persistent problem in some buildings. Occupants tend to blame these "bites" on some sort of pest infestation, typically fleas (which are rare in schools or office buildings), or "paper mites" (which do not exist). Demands for spraying of the affected space are often carried out in the absence of any evidence that biting insects are present. In fact, "paper mites" are almost always tiny, irritating particles like paper shards that constitute a cleaning or indoor air pollution problem rather than a pest problem.
The Role of Management
The most common mistake of management in "paper mite" situations is to automatically request a pesticide treatment, thereby incurring liability in the event occupants experience adverse reactions to the chemical. The second most common mistake is for supervisors to dismiss the complaints of biting as imagination. Although there are cases where people imagine they are being attacked by unseen parasites, most instances of biting-like sensations in buildings involve a genuine source of skin irritation. The circumstances can be further complicated, because health care professionals unfamiliar with the "paper mite syndrome" frequently misdiagnose the resulting welts as insect bites. Other people may believe that microscopic dust mites are involved; dust mites are real, but they cause breathing distress rather than bites. Finally, it is normal for the coworkers of a person complaining about "paper mites" to develop a heightened sensitivity to their own skin irritations (many caused away from the workplace) through the "power of suggestion.
F. Potter and P. G. Koehler
in a while, nearly everyone experiences the irritation of an unexpected itch or
the sensation of something crawling over the skin. Other times, the irritation
may feel more like an insect bite. These reactions can become so annoying for
some people that they are forced to seek professional help. Even though actual
pests may not have been observed, the irritation is often attributed to
"bugs," and an insecticide is applied in the hope that the problem
will be resolved. Unfortunately, pesticides seldom work in these situations, and
they may even cause irritation and additional health problems.
is important to recognize that there are many potential causes of itching and
irritation other than pests. Allergies, cosmetics, medications, and
environmental contaminants all can produce reactions similar to insect bites.
While this makes the experience no less real or unpleasant for the affected
individual, it underscores the importance of keeping an open mind to the
possibility of non-insect causes of such reactions. Much like a detective, one
should attempt to rule out all potential sources of irritation through the
process of elimination. this publication will help you to determine if the
irritation a person is experiencing is due to pests or to other (non-insect)
and real or perceived bites of unknown origin can usually be attributed to one
of four general sources:
are literally hundreds of non-insect agents capable of causing itching and
irritation. Household products are involved far more often than are pests and
may cause skin reactions similar to insect bites. Products most often implicated
include phosphate detergents, soaps, cosmetics, ammonia-based cleaning agents,
hair products, medications, printing inks (especially from multi-form carbonless
carbon paper), and certain types of clothing, particularly those which contain
fire retardants. If a connection can be made between irritation and exposure to
one of these potential irritants, avoiding further exposure may correct the
problem. A dermatologist can usually confirm that a product, rather than a pest,
is causing the irritation.
two or more individuals experience irritation in the absence of pests, the cause
is likely to be environmental conditions or contaminants dispersed in the air.
The irritant's) may be either physical or chemical in nature.
most common physical irritants are tiny fragments of paper, fabric, or
insulation. When these fibers contact the skin, they can produce symptoms
ranging from a "crawling sensation" to intense itching accompanied by
a rash, welts, or open sores. If fibers or fragments are involved, the
irritation usually occurs over exposed areas of the body such as arms, legs,
neck, and head.
produced by paper fragments is especially common in offices where large
quantities of paper are processed daily. Continuous-feed paper from computers
and multi-page forms generate large amounts of fragments, resulting in
accumulations on desktops and other surfaces. Newly installed or badly worn
synthetic carpet, drapes or upholstery also shed fibers which can irritate skin.
potential sources of irritation are insulation fibers released into the air by
heating/cooling systems in need of repair and sound-deadening fibers embedded
into drop-ceiling tiles. These latter sources are especially suspect if there
have been problems with the air-handling system or recent repair work on the
is aggravated by static electricity which increases the attraction of the tiny
charged fibers to exposed skin. Low humidity, electronic equipment, and nylon
(e.g., from carpeting, upholstery, or women's stockings) all increase levels of
static electricity and the potential for problems from fragments or fibers.
Static electricity may also cause body hair to move, giving the impression of
insects crawling over the skin.
fibers or fragments are suspected of causing the reactions, floors, rugs, work
surfaces, and furniture should be thoroughly and routinely vacuumed, and
desktops and tables wiped down with a damp cloth. Static-reducing measures
should also be considered such as raising the humidity level of the air and
installing static-resistant mats and pads under chairs and electronic equipment
in offices. Anti-static sprays can be used to treat seat cushions and nylon
air alone can cause irritation, producing a condition known as "winter
itch." As skin loses moisture, itching results. A similar reaction can
occur from changes in temperature; these tend to make skin more sensitive. A
skin moisturizer is often helpful in these situations.
air pollution can be a serious problem in modern office buildings and other
energy-efficient structures where air is recirculated over and over. Indoor air
pollution can also be a problem in homes. As the concentration of chemical
contaminants in the air increases, people may experience dizziness, headaches,
and eye, nose, or throat irritation. Certain air-borne contaminants can also
produce rashes and skin irritation similar to insect bites. Chemical
contaminants most often responsible for these reactions include ammonia-based
cleaning agents, formaldehyde emitted from wall and floor coverings, tobacco
smoke, and solvents and resins contained in paints, glues, adhesives, and
pesticides repeatedly applied for control of suspected pest infestations.
to airborne chemicals most often occur in buildings with inadequate ventilation,
especially those that are new or have been refurbished with new paint or wall or
floor coverings. If indoor air pollutants rather than insects are suspected, you
may wish to consult an industrial hygienist who is equipped to monitor
ventilation levels and the presence of allergy-producing contaminants. Companies
specializing in environmental health monitoring have listings in the telephone
directories of most metropolitan areas.
conditions may be responsible for irritation mistakenly attributed to insects.
Itching and skin irritation are common during pregnancy (especially during the
last trimester) and may also occur in conjunction with diabetes, liver, kidney,
and thyroid disease, and shingles. Food allergies are another common cause of
itching and irritation.
person's emotional state can also induce skin reactions that can be mistaken for
insect bites. Stress and conflict at work or home can produce itching and
irritation. The itching response can be induced in other individuals simply by
the "power of suggestion;" i.e., when one person in a group feels an
itch or bite and begins to talk about it, others also feel the urge to scratch
as well (a condition known as Bell's syndrome).
parasitosis is a more serious emotional disorder characterized by an irrational
fear that living organisms are infesting a person's body. Cases of delusory
parasitosis often have similar symptoms and patterns of behavior. Patients
typically report "bugs" invading their ears, nose, eyes, and other
areas of their body. The "creatures" frequently disappear and reappear
and change colors while being observed. Specimens brought in for identification
usually consist of bits of dead skin, hair, lint, and miscellaneous debris. The
skin of the individual is often severely irritated from desperate scratching,
excessive bathing, and application of ointments, bleaches, gasoline and other
solvents. While these occurrences may seem bizarre to persons who are not
affected, they are frighteningly real to the patient. Delusory parasitosis as
well as other suspected emotional or medical conditions should be brought to the
attention of a dermatologist or other physician.
is no easy way to pinpoint the cause of so-called "invisible" itches.
The most important consideration in determining if pests are involved is whether
anyone has actually seen or captured any "bugs" as the itching or
irritation is occurring. Most insects and mites which bite humans can be seen
without magnification if you look carefully. Pesticides should not be applied
unless there is actual evidence that pests are the cause of irritation.
most cases, pests will not be involved and relief from irritation will be
outside the realm of pest control. Approaching these problems in a rational and
methodical manner will increase the chances of finding the sources of
irritation. Refer to the list of likely irritants in Table 1 and follow
suggestions mentioned in this publication for alleviating the condition. If the
problem persists, you may need to employ the services of a pest control
professional, dermatologist, and/or environmental consultant.
detergents (especially phosphate-based)
printing inks (e.g., carbonless)
clothing (especially fire retardant)
A. Physical irritants
paper, fabric, or insulation fibers
seasonal changes in temperature
B. Chemical irritants
formaldehyde (e.g., from particle board,
wall and floor coverings)
solvents/resins associated with paints
volatiles from asphalt and tar
communicable diseases (e.g., chicken pox,
diabetes, liver, or kidney disorders
* Many of these
pests are large enough to be seen without magnification. One should also
consider the possibility of delayed irritation such as from bites
obtained while outdoors.
This document is ENY-269, one of a series of the Entomology and Nematology
Department, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and
Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida. Publication date: March 1995.
Revised: February 2000. Please visit the EDIS Website at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu.
Additional information on these organisms, including many color photographs, is
available at the Entomology and Nematology Department WWW site located at
M. F. Potter, The University of Kentucky, and P. G. Koehler, professor,
Entomology and Nematology Department, Cooperative Extension Service, Institute
of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida, Gainesville, 32611.
Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Employment
Opportunity - Affirmative Action Employer authorized to provide research,
educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions
that function without regard to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability,
sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or
affiliations. For information on obtaining other extension publications, contact
your county Cooperative Extension Service office.
Florida Cooperative Extension Service / Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences / University of Florida / Larry R. Arrington, Interim Dean
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