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Some of the World’s Rarest and Most Bizarre Diseases

Worldwide, untold millions suffer from well-known diseases like cancer, AIDS, and syphilis, as well as from psychological disorders like schizophrenia, depression and anxiety. 

Together they account for scores of deaths and immeasurable misery, but the lesser-known afflictions on this list are more bizarre, far rarer, and often just as debilitating and deadly to those unlucky enough to contract them. 

Let’s get started. 

1. Auto-Brewery Syndrome

For most of us intoxication comes only after voluntarily imbibing alcohol, but for those who suffer from Auto-Brewery Syndrome, the symptoms of drunkenness result from eating everyday foods like bread, pasta and donuts.  

In essence, the stomachs of those with ABS act as fermentation vessels like the ones used by manufacturers of beer and spirits. 

Hence, nearly pure alcohol is produced in their guts after they’ve consumed carb-rich foods.

Ironically, the disease’s main culprit is saccharomyces cerevisiae – good old-fashioned brewer’s yeast – which kickstarts fermentation that eventually yields ethanol or “drinking alcohol.”

Ethanol fermentation cycle
Ethanol fermentation cycle.By David B. Carmack Jr, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Since the task of processing ethanol falls to the liver, the ailment is often experienced by those with damaged, diseased or inefficient livers which results in the accumulation of unprocessed alcohol in the system.

Not surprisingly, symptoms are similar to those experienced by drinkers and often include dizziness, disorientation, slurred speech, inappropriate behavior and general giddiness, and like they are for those who’ve spent the previous evening chugging pints and slamming tequila shooters, hangovers, regret, stomach discomfort and bouts of diarrhea are common the following morning. 

Especially for undiagnosed sufferers who aren’t sure what they’re experiencing, the odd behavior associated with the condition can lead to serious disruptions in their personal and professional lives including ridicule and isolation which consquently cause depression, and sometimes attempted suicide. 

For some who suffer from ABS, curbing the disease’s effects may be as simple as changing their diet by substituting starchy wheat and rice-based carbs with fresh fruits and vegetables and lean meats. 

For others, both antifungal and antibiotic therapies have produced positive results with few side effects. 


In some cases the blood-alcohol concentration resulting from ABS can be high enough to cause erratic driving. 

In the United States legal blood-alcohol limits vary from state to state, but in some like Florida, statutes make a distinction between manmade alcohol wilfully imbibed, and that produced in the body naturally. 

2. Pica

Pica is a bizarre psychological disorder in which people crave and eat non-food and non-nutritive items like the non-nutritive cereal varnish mentioned in Christmas Vacation starring Chevy Chase, only much, much worse. 

Originating from the Latin term for magpie – birds that eat almost anything – humans with pica eat everything from chalk, kitty litter and human and animal excrement, to toxic chemicals, rusty nails, glass and old books. 

Though it’s most commonly seen in children, pregnant women and those with severe developmental disabilities, it’s also been studied in adult men and animals like cats and dogs. 

In order for this odd and often fatal condition to be diagnosed as actual pica, symptoms must generally persist for more than a month and be present in places where it’s not socially acceptable, which it is in some locales in rural Africa and even isolated regions of the American South for example, where dirt and clay are commonly eaten as a means of replenishing the body’s supply of vitamins and nutrients not typically found in indigenous food.

In general however, the condition isn’t linked to biological abnormalities, but to severe physical and emotional traumas like rape, maternal deprivation and familial neglect, after which Pica may be adopted as a form of comfort and control. 

Those who eat foreign objects are prone to poisoning, infection, parasites and gastrointestinal obstructions that in many cases lead to permanent damage and even death. 

In recent years pica was often classified as an extreme form of obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD, but though there’s no cure, therapy and the administration of anti-depression SSRI medications have produced positive results.

Internet searches for pica invariably turn up photographs of mounds of items removed from the stomachs of those who have the condition, and though some have been embellished for dramatic effect, others that have been substantiated by medical professionals include huge arrays of plastic bags, chunks of brick and mortar, stuffing from sofa cushions, pens, pencils and buttons. 

Some studies have found that though nearly all outgrow it, Pica is present in nearly 50% of children between 18 and 36-months-old, which explains why they’ll put nearly anything in their mouths.  

3. Foreign Accent Syndrome

Though those who suffer from Foreign Accent Syndrome don’t just wake up one morning mysteriously speaking in tongues or foreign languages, many exhibit strange accent changes, particularly after experiencing head trauma from automobile accidents or sports injuries resulting in concussions. 

When it was first officially recognized FAS was seen as a purely psychological ailment likely little more than an attempt by those exhibiting symptoms to garner attention, but subsequent studies have found a number of correlations to medical conditions, most of which are associated with damage to the areas of the brain that control speech. 

FAS can manifest itself after strokes and oxygen deprivation situations as well, though it’s unclear whether the corresponding change in accent results from the brain recalling a style of speech that the person previously experienced, or whether it’s not really a foreign accent at all, but only sounds like one due to impaired motor skills and garbled speech. 

It’s probably equally common in both first world and developing countries, but FAS is more frequently diagnosed in the former, with most cases being reported in regional areas like between Japan and Korea and Spain and Portugal, and in distant countries that share a common language like America and England. 

Women between the ages of 25 and 49 are the most common afflicted with FAS, and some evidence suggests that it often results from a combination of physical and psychological catalysts, and that it’s much less prevalent when only one is present.  

The fallout from FAS can be minimal in social situations, especially those in which the person with the disorder is interacting with friends and coworkers who know they have it. 

However it’s common for those with FAS to try to hide it from those they’re not as close to, and when it rears its ugly head at the wrong time it can be awkward, distressing, downright embarrassing, and is viewed by many who don’t understand it as little more than childish and inappropriate behavior. 

4. Fish Odor Syndrome

At least in America there’s an old saying  – 

Like fish, houseguests stink after a few days.

Even those of us who enjoy seafood don’t generally appreciate the lingering smell that goes along with it, but for some unfortunate souls the odors associated with past-its-prime fish are naturally produced in their very own bodies and emitted through sweat, breath and urine, and the resulting emotional trauma can be debilitating. 

odor illustration
odor illustration. By Ben Rose, is licensed under CC-BY

Though odor strength varies from person to person, and even from day to day for individuals, in nearly all cases it has a severe impact on the person’s day-to-day life both professionally and socially.

Withdrawing from their peers, the afflicted become isolated and lonely, and adding more fuel to the fire they often can’t detect when the odors are strong and offensive, and when they’re nearly nonexistent. 

In many cases the trauma starts in motion a classic vicious circle, that like other maladies on this list can result in being shunned by friends, family members and intimate partners, which consequently leads to low self-esteem, feelings of hopelessness, ridicule and eventually thoughts of suicide.

The bodies of those with FAS are incapable of sufficiently breaking down an organic compound called trimethylamine, which produces the unpleasant and often overpowering smell, and research has discovered that nearly all sufferers share a particular gene mutation which may be at least partially to blame. 

In normal people the FMO3 gene instructs the body to break down trimethylamine and other enzymes, but for those afflicted with Fish Odor Syndrome the gene’s electrochemical messages don’t end up where they’re supposed to, and there’s little modern medicine can do about it.  

Managing trimethylaminuria is possible by eliminating fish (obviously) from the diet, but also other non-fishy foods like mustard seeds, eggs, liver and soybeans which contain high concentrations of the nutrient choline which exacerbates the condition.

On the downside, low levels of choline can cause neurological diseases and physical complications like liver problems and increased risk of cancer. 

In the end, sufferers often find themselves trapped in a downward spiral from which they have little hope of escaping. 

5. Body Integrity Identity Disorder

Body Integrity Identity Disorder or BIID, often referred to as Amputee Identity Disorder or apotemnophilia was first diagnosed nearly five decades ago. 

BIID is a rare, little studied condition in which people suffer from unhealthy body image that often results in the overwhelming desire to have a limb or limbs amputated, or in some cases to become blind or deaf. 

When it was first discovered doctors found correlations between the loss of a limb and increased sexual arousal in some sufferers, though the onset of the disease typically occurs in early adolescence long before the advent of sexual activity. 

Most cases are reported early on, between the ages of eight and twelve, and many who have the disorder knew an amputee when they were growing up, which points to environment as the root cause as opposed to an actual medical condition.  

Though it remained a relatively obscure and little understood malady early on, it was thrust into the limelight in the late 1990s, thanks largely to a Scottish surgeon who amputated perfectly healthy limbs from patients suffering from the disorder, which created an ethical uproar in the medical community.  

Interestingly, researchers have found that there often exists a measurable difference in skin sensitivity below the proposed line of amputation than above it, and that those with BIID are more likely to want the removal of a limb from the left side of their body, which is consistent with abnormalities in the right parietal lobe of the brain. 

While some suffer in silence and never act on their macabre desires, others confine themselves to wheelchairs and wear prosthetics, though their own limbs are perfectly OK. 

Still others take matters into their own hands and attempt to remove the unwanted appendages by amputation and other means.  

Cases have been reported in which sufferers have resorted to lying on train tracks to have their legs amputated compliments of the railroad, while in other instances people have soaked their arms and legs in drums of ice to kill the tissue, after which medical amputation would be necessary.

Few of the latter attempts are successful however, because the pain is so great that the person voluntarily removes their limbs from the ice long before any permanent damage is done. 

There are few generally accepted treatments for the condition, though the use of cognitive behavioral therapy and antidepressant medications have shown promising signs. 

6. Cotard Delusion

Unlike with BIID, those afflicted with Cotard Delusion or CD believe that their souls, bodies, and/or individual body parts are either dead or dying, or are apparitions

Not surprisingly, it’s often referred to as Walking Corpse Syndrome, because in both appearance and demeanor those who suffer from it resemble zombies. 

CD usually occurs as a result of or in conjunction with severe depression and other psychotic ailments like catatonia, anxiety, schizophrenia, postpartum depression and bipolar and dissociative disorders.  

Typical symptoms include lethargy, hallucinations, hypochondria, preoccupation with death, and the self-infliction of bodily injury, often by cutting and burning.

In addition, sufferers are often convinced that their friends and family have been replaced by body doubles or imposters, and they commonly believe that nothing has any meaning or value, and that everything is an illusion and therefore doesn’t really exist at all, a condition called nihilism.   

People in the grips of CD often stop bathing and brushing their teeth and wear the same clothes over and over.

Others stop eating and drinking because they believe their body doesn’t need nourishment, which can lead to dehydration, malnutrition and even death by starvation. 

Not surprisingly, those around them often become repulsed, and begin distancing themselves both physically and emotionally. 

But though it may sound like a condition most associated with teenagers and young adults, that’s not the case. 

In fact, the average age of sufferers is nearly 50, and incidences of CD are more common in women than in men. 

Ironically, many with CD actually recognize that their behavior is irrational, though they tend to see it as being prompted by some innate flaw, and not the environment in which they grew up or currently live. 

Diagnosing Cotard Delusion is difficult because most organizations don’t recognize it as a disease. 

This means there’s no standardized list of criteria from which it can be classified, and it’s usually only a last-ditch label applied after everything else has been ruled out. 

Early on electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) was a common treatment, during which weak electric currents were passed through the brains of those with CD while they were under general anesthesia. 

Electroconvulsive therapy machine on display at Glenside Museum in Bristol, England
Electroconvulsive therapy machine on display at Glenside Museum in Bristol, England. By Rodw, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

ECT does have a number of potential risks however, including nausea, memory loss, and chronic muscle fatigue, which many of the worst sufferers consider small prices to pay for even moderate relief. 

Other treatments include behavioral and psychotherapy and the use of antidepressant and antipsychotic medications. 

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