Fear of Germs

Mysophobia, more commonly known as “germaphobia” or “germ phobia,”

is a pathological fear of germs, dirt, and above all of contamination.

A phobia is an irrational fear of an object or situation. Most people understand that there are good germs (such as bacteria, which helps us digest food) and harmful germs (like cold and flu viruses, salmonella and E. coli). The mysophobe overestimates the risk of being harmed by germs, believing that any potential exposure to germs is dangerous and threatening.

Mysophobia is common in the United States. Some experts link the growing incidence of this disorder to Americans’ general perception of the world as being a dangerous, uncontrollable place. Media coverage of the AIDS epidemic may also be a contributing factor. The increase in hygiene products such as hand sanitizers, portable subway straps and disposable toilet seat covers, is also believed to be a contributor to the rise of mysophobia.

Mysophobia is a common symptom of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), an anxiety disorder that results in unwanted thoughts and excessive or compulsive actions. Mysophobia may also be related to hypocondriasis, an intense fear of contracting an illness. In some cases, mysophobia may be regarded a type of specific phobia.


Mysophobia may develop after an individual experiences a traumatic event that links germs or dirt with a negative emotional response. This event can be a first-hand experience or a second-hand experience; mysophobia can also be triggered by a seemingly benign situation such as a scene from a film or television show. The person contracting this disorder may have a pre-existing tendency to worry, and it is likely that anxiety and depression run in the family.


When exposed to germs or dirt, the individual may experience breathlessness, nausea, heart palpitations, or a fear of loss of control. The individual can also feel ill and start shaking if she fears that she is being contaminated. Mysophobic will tend to avoid situations in which they may be exposed to germs.

Mysophobia results in repeated, unreasonable behavior and actions. These can include:

  • excessive washing, for example, repeated hand washing (an action which paradoxically makes the individual more prone to infection)
  • avoiding activities that are deemed unclean by the individual, such as using public bathrooms
  • declaring the desire not to share any personal items, including utensils and toothbrushes as well as food
  • avoiding social situations which include a close group of people or animals

The fear of contamination can become increasingly restrictive for the individual. She may refuse to shake hands, avoid touching doorknobs directly, or use an excessive amount of soap or hand sanitizer.

Mysophobia can have severe social repercussions. Because the individual is terrified of contamination, she will avoid many social situations for fear of coming into contact with germs or dirt. Also, other individuals may not understand the mysophobe’s condition, and think of her as paranoid or hostile, leading to alienation and isolation.


There are several treatments available for mysophobes that, if followed actively, can have long-term benefits on the individual’s quality of life. The safest and most effective treatments employ the same techniques used for the treatment of OCD and other types of phobias, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). With CBT, the therapist guides sufferer through a series of gradual exposures to feared items and situations. Early sessions of therapy may involve having the individual shake someone’s hand without washing it for five minutes. As the person learns to master the fear, the therapist will guide the sufferer through more intense exposures, such as touching garbage or shaking the hands of hospital patients. This type of treatment is extremely effective and, if properly administered, works after just a few months.

Medication is also an effective option, and will often involve the use of SSRI antidepressant drugs, such as Paxil, Prozac, or Zoloft. Medication is a good adjunct to CBT as it may make the therapy easier for the individual. However, medication may have unwanted side effects and is also not a permanent cure.

Unproven treatments include hypnotherapy, neuro-linguistic programming, and so-called “energy psychology.” Avoid any unproven techniques until CBT and medication have been given an adequate trial.

Information about other related disorders can be found by visiting the OCD Types web site.

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