Mysophobia

Mysophobia, or the fear of germs, refers to an unhealthy fear of contamination

Young woman washing hands under running tap, close-up
Jutta Klee/Getty Images

Mysophobia, or the fear of germs, refers to an unhealthy fear of contamination. It is normal and prudent to be concerned about issues such as cross-contamination of foods, exposure to the bodily fluids of others and maintaining good hygiene. However, if you suffer from mysophobia, these normal concerns become overblown. The phobia is common, affecting even celebrities such as Howie Mandel.

Mysophobia and OCD

Mysophobia is thought to be related to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

 OCD obsessions are repeated, persistent and unwanted urges or images that cause distress or anxiety. These obsessions typically intrude when you're trying to think of or do other things.

Obsessions often have themes to them, such as:

  • Fear of contamination or dirt
  • Having things orderly and symmetrical
  • Aggressive or horrific thoughts about harming yourself or others
  • Unwanted thoughts, including aggression, or sexual or religious subjects

Examples of obsession signs and symptoms include:

  • Fear of being contaminated by shaking hands or by touching objects others have touched
  • Doubts that you've locked the door or turned off the stove
  • Intense stress when objects aren't orderly or facing a certain way
  • Images of hurting yourself or someone else
  • Thoughts about shouting obscenities or acting inappropriately
  • Avoidance of situations that can trigger obsessions, such as shaking hands
  • Distress about unpleasant sexual images repeating in your mind

    One of the most common symptoms of mysophobia is frequent hand washing, also a common symptom of OCD. However, the motivation for the hand washing is different. People with OCD are compelled to relieve the distress they experience as a result of the non-completion of the act itself, while people with mysophobia are compelled to complete the act specifically to remove germs.

    The difference is subtle, and many people suffer from both conditions, so it is important to see a mental health professional for proper diagnosis.

    Symptoms of Mysophobia

    If you suffer from mysophobia, you may experience shaking, heart palpitations, sweating or crying when exposed to dirt or bacteria. These symptoms may occur only when the object of your phobia is visible, as is the case when digging in a garden, or when you believe that germ contact may have occurred, such as when shaking hands with someone or using a doorknob.

    You may also demonstrate unusual behaviors. For example, you may take multiple showers each day. You might carry and use hand sanitizer frequently. You may be unwilling to use public restrooms, share food or take public transportation.

    Complications of Mysophobia

    Because people with mysophobia fear germs carried by others, the condition can lead you to avoid social situations. You might avoid expected gatherings such as work parties, holiday get-togethers and meetings.

    When you do participate, you may find yourself avoiding physical contact and sanitizing your hands more frequently.

    Over time, these behaviors can lead to isolation. Your friends and relatives might not understand, and they could perceive you as hostile or even paranoid. You could develop social phobia, in which you begin to fear contact with others. You might eventually choose to isolate yourself altogether, leading to agoraphobia.

    Treatment for Mysophobia

    Fortunately, mysophobia can be successfully managed. It is important to visit a mental health professional as soon as possible, since the condition tends to worsen over time. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is the most common form of treatment, although medications may also be prescribed. Depending on your therapist’s orientation, you may be encouraged to explore the root of the phobia, or you may simply be taught how to control the symptoms.

    To better understand your choices for therapy, see Talk Therapy: An Overview.

    Reference:

    American Psychiatric Association. (2103). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th Ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

    Mayo Clinic. Obsessive-compulsive disorder. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/ocd/basics/symptoms/con-20027827

    Continue Reading