MANASSAS, Va. — Normally a bunch of middle-school students with skin problems would not be a mystery. But acne is not the problem at Marsteller Middle School.
Hundreds of pupils and several staff members have contracted an unexplained rash over the last two weeks, and doctors are baffled.
So far, the school has been unable to find any chemical or contaminant that could be causing the itching.
"We may never know what it is," said county schools spokeswoman Irene Cromer.
The rash came to the attention of school officials Nov. 20, when 30 cases were reported. The school closed the next day and again Nov. 27 in an effort to stop the rash from spreading and to conduct environmental tests. In all, about 350 students out of the school's 940 have reported having a rash.
Some of the students were diagnosed with fifth disease, a mild viral illness that produces a flat, red rash, often on the cheeks. But most students are suffering from a bumpy, itchy rash, often on their arms.
"We've had some students diagnosed with fifth disease. We've had some kids who may have instigated a rash by scratching themselves in order to get sent to the nurse. And we definitely have kids that have developed a rash for unexplained reasons," said Dr. Alison Ansher of the county health department.
The health department is evaluating whether the rash is "psychogenic," a product of the students' minds.
"Teens are certainly suggestive, and teens like to fit in with their peers," Ansher said.
The number of new cases at Marsteller has been dropping. The school nurse saw 25 rashes over Tuesday and Wednesday, compared with 160 cases last Thursday.