I wrote two articles inspired by Occam’s dictum to not multiply entities beyond necessity. The first, Occam’s Hot Tub simply proposed one particular possible cause of the symptoms that people claim are a new disease called Morgellons. The second, Occam’s Menopause, noted that all the symptoms of Morgellons are also caused by menopause, and since there are a lot of middled aged women in the Morgellons demographic, that probably explains a lot of cases.
People who think they are infested with something often look through a microscope, and sometimes they see things they cannot identify. One of the more interesting and common things is the “starfish“, which looks like this:
and here’s another:
Rather unusual little things that’s for sure. If you found those emerging from your body, then you’d be forgiven for being a bit suspicious. So what the heck are they?
As it turns out, nothing at all unusual. They are stellate trichomes, also known as stellate hairs or star hairs. Stellate hairs are star shaped hairs found on the leaves of plants. Here’s two from oak leaves:
They float around in the air, and get stuck in things, just like lint does. If you live close to oak trees, you’ll probably find them on your skin, and certainly in nasal mucus. They get stuck in amber:
So what is this to do with Occam? Well, it’s a lesson in hindsight. If you find something unusual looking on your skin, something that looks like a weird gelatinous spider or starfish, what explanation should you favor? You don’t know what it is, so either way you’d be introducing a new entity. But “a bit of plant matter I’ve never seen before” is a lot simpler than “a fiber producing pathogen new to science”.
But the real test of Occam for the person who thinks they have Morgellons is when they ask “so, I can see that’s a Stellate Trichome, so why are plants growing inside my body?”. Here again, there are two explanations: some stellate hairs were carried by the wind into your sore, and you found them later with your microscope, or there is some parasitic plant growing inside your body. To the person who wants to be diagnosed with Morgellons, the second answer, although perhaps infinitely less likely, is more attractive.
There’s a little more on trichomes, they can produce allergic reactions. eMedicine says of sunflowers: “An occupational allergic contact dermatitis is often found in individuals who harvest this flower. The major allergen is known as 1-0-methyl 1-4,5-dihydroniveusin A. The pollen is said to be a minor allergen. Trichomes, or small hairs, on the surfaces of the leaf secrete the allergens. Windblown trichomes from dry plants can cause airborne contact dermatitis.”
Morgellons is not a distinct disease, it’s just a list of symptoms that are caused by many other diseases and conditions. Some people who think they have Morgellons probably have skin allergies that gives them contact dermatitis. In this particular case, they may well examine their lesions and find the cause of their problems is a translucent starfish. In this case, they would be correct. But it’s not “Morgellons”.