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If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
Plenty of people don’t care for dirt and germs––and to a certain degree, that’s pragmatic. Dirt makes a mess, and germs can make us sick.
But for some people, the fear of these things that surround us becomes obsessive and debilitating. When that happens, it’s called mysophobia.
What is mysophobia?
You may have heard the term germophobia before, but that doesn’t quite capture the fears this phobia can induce.
People with mysophobia have a pathological fear of contamination and germs. This can include things that cause contamination––like microbes, bacteria, and viruses––or anxiety around catching something from an animal or through physical contact.
To be diagnosed with mysophobia, these fears must last six months or more (Samra, 2021). Mysophobia can lead to social isolation and may cause depression if left untreated.
Mysophobia and obsessive-compulsive disorder
Researchers believe that mysophobia is related to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). A person can have one without the other or both conditions at the same time.
Those who have both are preoccupied with potential contaminants (like avoiding food that could spoil) or with decontamination tactics, such as repetitive handwashing or excessively using hand sanitizer (Penzel, 2000).
Signs and symptoms of mysophobia
Specific phobias (fears of particular things) have similar symptoms just with different triggers.
How to help someone with anxiety
Someone with mysophobia will go to great lengths to avoid germs and experiences a great deal of distress about it. Common symptoms of mysophobia may include:
- Intense fear of germs or contamination
- Worries that germs will lead to illness
- Feeling overcome with fear in situations where there are germs
- Recognizing that the fear is excessive, but feeling unable to stop or control it
- Inability to think about things other than germs
Individuals may also exhibit compulsive behaviors including:
- Avoiding or excessively preparing for situations where there will be germs
- Performing actions, such as hand washing, even when it interferes with productivity or daily life
On top of everything else, phobias often affect how people function in social situations (Samra, 2021). Phobias of germs have been associated with more instances of depression and social problems than other common phobias, such as a fear of spiders (Ollendick, 2010).
Hypochondria: causes, triggers, and treatment
To treat mysophobia, mental health professionals usually use a combination of therapy and medication.
Exposure therapy is still the first-line treatment for specific phobias like mysophobia. During this type of psychotherapy, someone with a phobia is gradually and repeatedly introduced to the thing they fear until it no longer triggers a fear response. The exposure can be real or imagined, and using things like virtual reality can be part of the treatment process (Singh, 2016).
Many practitioners combine exposure with cognitive behavioral therapy, where they teach patients relaxation techniques, such as breathing control and mindfulness.
Patients then use those tools as their therapist gradually exposes them to their phobia, generally starting with something that causes only a little stress. As sessions progress, situations or things that cause much greater anxiety are introduced, and people learn to handle the associated emotions (Samra, 2021).
If someone is prone to panic attacks associated with their phobia, medication and therapy may be recommended.
Beta-blockers and benzodiazepines are common and may be helpful during therapy when someone is facing a fear dead on. These drugs ease symptoms of panic like elevated heart rate (Samra, 2021; NIH, 2016).
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): what is it, symptoms, treatment
A healthcare provider may also prescribe a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) if your mysophobia is OCD-related. These medicines are also used to treat depression and anxiety, but higher doses may be used in people with OCD (Brock, 2020).
Seeking help for your phobia may seem daunting, but it’s worthwhile. Phobias left untreated are associated with other mental health issues, such as anxiety and substance abuse. Addressing your phobia early may have positive long-term benefits for your mental health (Eaton, 2018).
- Brock, H. & Hany, M. (2020). Obsessive-compulsive disorder. [Updated Nov 27, 2021]. In: StatPearls. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK553162/
Eaton, W. W., Bienvenu, O. J., & Miloyan, B. (2018). Specific phobias. The Lancet Psychiatry, 5(8), 678–686. doi: 10.1016/s2215-0366(18)30169-x. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S221503661830169X
Efremova, M. D. (2001). Obsessivno-fobicheskie rasstroĭstva s iavleniiami mizofobii pri vialotekushcheĭ shizofrenii [Obsessive-phobic disorders with the phenomena of mysophobia in slowly progressing schizophrenia]. Zhurnal Nevrologii I Psikhiatrii Imeni S.S. Korsakova, 101(2), 12–17. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11243027/
National Institutes of Health (NIH). (2016). Panic disorder: when fear overwhelms. National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/panic-disorder-when-fear-overwhelms
Ollendick, T. H., Raishevich, N., Davis III, T. E., Sirbu, C., & Öst, L. G. (2010). Specific phobia in youth: phenomenology and psychological characteristics. Behavior Therapy, 41(1), 133–141. doi: 10.1016/j.beth.2009.02.002. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0005789409000598?via%3Dihub
Samra, C.K. & Abdijadid, S.(2021). Specific phobias. [Updated May 15, 2021]. In: StatPearls. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK499923/
Singh, J. & Singh, J. (2016). Treatment options for the specific phobias. International Journal of Basic and Clinical Pharmacology, 5(3), 593–598. doi: 10.18203/2319-2003.ijbcp20161496. Retrieved from https://www.ijbcp.com/index.php/ijbcp/article/view/305
Yael Cooperman is a physician and works as a Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.