Researchers aren't sure exactly what causes Munchausen syndrome, but they believe the risks include:
- A history of sexual, physical or emotional abuse
- A serious illness during childhood
- A relative who was seriously ill or died
- A career in the health industry, or a desire to work as a health professional
- Poor self-esteem
- A personality disorder, such as self-destructive behavior, passive-aggressive personality or poor impulse control
Most people who have the condition are either young or middle-aged, but Munchausen syndrome can occur at any age.
People with Munchausen syndrome will go to great lengths to feign illness. They might pretend to be sick by tampering with instruments (for example, heating a thermometer) or altering blood or urine samples, or they might actually cause symptoms by injecting themselves with foreign substances (such as toxins) or taking unnecessary medications.
Some of the symptoms of Munchausen syndrome include:
- Symptoms that fit precisely into the textbook description of an illness but that can't be controlled with treatments
- An eagerness to undergo different tests and procedures, no matter how uncomfortable or painful they are
- An inconsistent medical history
- A willingness to travel to different doctors and hospitals (sometimes in far-flung areas)
- An in-depth understanding of illnesses and hospital procedures
- A refusal to let doctors talk to their family or friends
Munchausen syndrome can lead to real health problems from taking medicines and undergoing unnecessary procedures. It also can increase the risk of suicide, interfere with work and family relationships, and can even lead to death.