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17 Most Bizarre Diseases You Won’t Believe Are Real

Purple urine? Skin like tree bark? Allergic to water? To the patients who have them, these strange diseases and conditions are all too real.

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The disease that makes you believe you’re dead

Most of us realize that zombies are the stuff of science fiction, but those who suffer from Cotard’s delusion are convinced they are dead and rotting or at the very least least losing body parts. They often refuse to eat or bathe out of worry, for example, that they don’t have the digestive system to handle food or that water will wash away fragile body parts. Research suggests Cotard’s is caused by a failure in areas of the brain that recognize emotions, leading to feelings of detachment. Luckily, medication can often be used to treat it. And if you think that’s weird, check out these strange but real phobias.

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17 Most Bizarre Diseases You Won't Believe Are Real
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The disease that causes you to speak with a foreign accent

Sufferers of foreign accent syndrome randomly wake up one day and begin speaking with a foreign accent. This condition is so rare (only 60 cases exist!) that doctors originally thought the patients were delusional. But in 2002, scientists at Oxford University discovered that sufferers shared similar brain abnormalities that caused changes to their speech pitch and syllables. The syndrome can also be brought on by a head injury or stroke, studies show. Don’t miss the 42 strange symptoms that can signal a serious disease.

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The disease that makes you allergic to water

Most of us take showers and swim in pools without a second thought. But for people with aquagenic urticaria, casual contact with water causes them to break out in hives. Only 30 people have been diagnosed with this, CNN reports, and most of them have been women. That said, much remains unknown about this strange condition, including how to cure it. Sufferers often bathe in baking soda and cover their bodies with creams in order to cope, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

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Glass with water on a white background with purple paint.

The disease that turns your urine purple

Vincent Van Gogh and the “mad” King George III of England have one unusual thing in common: Both men’s wild mood swings have been be attributed by some theorists to porphyria, a rare disease in which the body fails to produce heme, a protein that helps cells carry oxygen. Substances called porphyrins build up to toxic levels in the liver and when released turn the color of urine and feces purple. Detractors of the theory prefer to attribute the wild mood swings to mental health conditions such as bipolar disorder. In the case of Van Gogh, who spent a good deal of his adult life hospitalized, there was no mention of “purple urine” in doctor’s reports—or in his prolific and intimate letters to his brother Theo.

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one brush lies on the bank of paint turquoise color on gray wooden background
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The disease that causes you to crave and eat paint and dirt

Like the magpie (in Latin, picave), a bird known to eat almost anything, people with pica syndrome are not picky eaters. Sufferers crave and ingest unappetizing items including paint, clay, chalk, soap, plaster, and dirt, as well as more edible raw goods like rice or flour. To be diagnosed with pica, cravings must be continuous for over a month. Symptoms are seen most commonly in pregnant women or children. Some suspect the syndrome is caused by a mineral deficiency, but experts do not agree on the cause or cure.

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Hand with instrument of measure

The disease that makes you feel like you are shrinking

You can probably guess why this condition is named after Lewis Carroll’s famous book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Those with Alice in Wonderland syndrome feel themselves rapidly shrinking or expanding, and often believe objects appear smaller than they actually are, according to the Oxford Handbook of Clinical Medicine. Research has linked the condition to migraine headaches. Coincidentally, Lewis Carroll himself suffered from severe migraines; some believe his condition may have inspired many of the scenes in the book.

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The disease that causes you to age seven times faster

At the age of one or two years old, children with this condition begin to show signs of aging, such as slow growth and hair loss. Eventually, they lose most of their body fat and develop wrinkles, making them look decades older than their true age. The root cause: A rare genetic condition called progeria, which is derived from Greek and means “prematurely old.” No cure has been discovered yet, and the average patient will pass away by the age of 14, according to the Progeria Research Foundation.

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The children is playing cymbal
Prathan Nakdontree/Shutterstock

The disease that plays loud exploding sounds in your head

People who experience exploding head syndrome claim to hear extremely loud sounds like gunfire or cymbals as they fall asleep or wake up when no one else around them can hear a thing. There is no consensus as to why this occurs, but it is believed to be a sleep disorder brought on by stress or exhaustion. Although most sufferers will only hear the sound once or twice in their lifetimes, sometimes medication is necessary for those with recurring issues.

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woman is checking white hair white looking at the mirror

The disease that makes your hair turn white almost overnight

If your hair abruptly turns white as a result of stress or bad news, you might suffer from canities subita, also called Marie Antoinette syndrome. The condition was coined for Queen Marie Antoinette of France—whose hair reportedly turned white the night before her guillotining—but is also said to have affected famous figures like Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin. A number of factors could be to blame, including an autoimmune disorder that targets melanin, affecting pigment production. Read up on the scientific explanations behind these 22 quirky body reactions.

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The disease that prevents you from feeling pain

Believe it or not, a small portion of the population would not feel a thing if you pinched, prodded, or poked them. They have what is called congenital analgesia, an inherited genetic mutation that prevents the body from sending pain signals to the brain. While this may sound like a Superman-worthy trait, it’s not all good. Sufferers may not realize they’re burning themselves, for example, or they may ignore and fail to treat infections or broken bones. Repeated injuries could also shorten the sufferer’s lifespan, per the NIH.

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The disease that causes you to remember every single day of your life

Ask someone what they were doing on this exact day eight years ago, and most people wouldn’t have a clue. People with hyperthymesia, however, can tell you exactly to the minute. Hyperthymesia is rate. So far there are 33 people who can recall every detail about every day of their lives, usually starting from a specific date in their youth. Because the condition is so uncommon, experts do not yet have enough information to theorize a cause or cure.

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X-ray view of elbow

The disease that turns your tissue into bone

Fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva (FOP) is in the running for the most common disease on this list; about 1 in 2 million people have been diagnosed with it, according to the NIH. It is a genetic disorder that transforms soft tissues into bone after injury or other trauma. Eventually, the disease can cause joints and muscles to stiffen up and fuse together. Like many of the other rare conditions on this list, there is currently no known cure.

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Tree bark texture

The disease that turns your skin into bark

Also known as tree man syndrome, this rare condition causes a bark-like substance to grow on a person’s skin. The growths are actually warts, resulting from a rare genetic mutation. Though around 600 cases occur each year, this unusual condition continues to leave doctors stumped—no pun intended. Surgery can work to temporarily remove the growths, but medical researchers have yet to find a full-blown cure. Check out more unsolved mysteries that still baffle doctors.

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17 Most Bizarre Diseases You Won't Believe Are Real
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The disease that gives you a rash from cellphones

Imagine getting a headache or breaking out in a rash any time you step near a cell phone, WiFi router, or any other device that emits an electromagnetic field. Believe it or not, some people experience exactly that every day. Due to its controversial reputation in the medical community, electromagnetic hypersensitivity was not officially recognized by the World Health Organization until 2004. Experts argue that no link has been confirmed between electromagnetic fields and sufferers’ unpleasant reactions; the true cause, however, has yet to be found.

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Threads densely reeled up on the coil
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The disease that causes tiny threads to poke out of your skin

Sufferers of Morgellons disease report feeling crawling, biting, and stinging sensations on their bodies—as if they were covered or infested with bugs. Some report strange, dark threads or fibers popping out of their skin, according to the Morgellons Research Foundation. While doctors once dismissed sufferers’ symptoms as delusional, research now suggests that this bizarre condition could be related to a tick-borne illness. Read more about the biggest mysteries about the human body that still aren’t solved.

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Woman pressing her hand against a painful shoulder

The disease that makes you literally feel other peoples’ pain

We all have mirror neurons in our brains, which is why we might cry when we see someone else’s tears. But people with mirror-touch synesthesia are believed to have overactive mirror neurons, making their responses much more extreme. The condition causes people to literally feel the physical sensations when they watch another person being touched. Just seeing glasses on someone else’s nose can make sufferers react.

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Messy bed. White pillow with blanket on bed unmade. Concept of relaxing after morning. With lighting window. Black and white theme.

The disease that makes it impossible to sleep

Fatal familial insomnia is exactly what it sounds like: A rare, hereditary gene mutation that makes it impossible for the sufferer to fall asleep. Insomnia is typically the first symptom, followed by anxiety, dementia, and hallucinations as lack of restorative sleep takes its toll. After a year or more of sleepless nights most sufferers die according to the NIH. Here are other strange things you never knew about your body.

Brooke Nelson Alexander
Brooke is a tech and consumer products writer covering the latest in digital trends, product reviews, security and privacy, and other news and features for Reader's Digest. She's a two-time Emmy-nominated reporter with nearly 10 years of publishing experience, and her work has been recognized by the Columbia Scholastic Press Association.