If your life revolves around a fear of germs and contamination, your behavior may be more than just good hygiene.
It’s natural to be mindful of such things as bacteria, contaminants, and viruses in your environment. Taking minimum precautions to avoid exposing yourself repeatedly is understandable.
But practicing caution isn’t the same as going out of your way to avoid all germs — real or perceived.
If you’re making significant lifestyle changes or sacrificing relationships and activities you enjoy due to a fear of germs, you may be living with mysophobia.
Mysophobia, also referred to regularly as germophobia, is an intense fear of real or perceived germs, contamination, sickness, or dirt.
Many people know mysophobia by a handful of other names, including:
Mysophobia is real, but its clinical diagnosis falls under “specific phobias.”
Specific phobias in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) are considered mental health conditions because they cause significant distress or impact important areas of daily functions, such as your social or occupational outlets.
What is a phobia?
A phobia is an irrational, intense, and often impairing level of fear or anxiety related to a specific trigger.
You can experience a phobia of almost anything. For some people, it may be related to dirt, germs, or filth. For other people, phobias may involve inanimate objects or situations.
Mysophobia symptoms may present as:
- intense feelings of fear related to germs
- anxiety and apprehension at the thought of exposure to germs
- active avoidance of people, situations, places, and objects that may be associated with germs
- excessive or compulsive cleanliness behaviors
- obsessive behaviors related to sanitation or cleanliness
- physical discomfort and signs related to anxiety or panic such as:
- elevated heart rate
- feelings of chest or airway constriction
- rapid breathing
- yelling, screaming, or meltdowns
Examples of mysophobia beliefs and behaviors
Many folks began some of these practices during the pandemic to protect against the coronavirus outbreak. But if these actions were already part of your regimen before COVID-19 or even while alone, they might be mysophobic behaviors:
- handwashing excessively
- using a tissue or putting on gloves before touching items outside of your personal space
- overusing cleaning products
- carrying self-sanitization products for personal use or use on items in public spaces
- perceiving an inability to touch or use public objects, such as restaurant bathrooms
- believing that only your home is a safe, germ-free space
- avoiding sharing food or beverages (including buffets or public self-service food or beverage outlets)
- perceiving an inability to use public transportation
- showering multiple times a day
- associating germs with strangers and cleanliness with those close to you
- avoiding thoughts or ideas deemed “unclean”
There is no set-in-stone list of behaviors or beliefs that indicate mysophobia. How fear of germs manifests in your life can be unique to your situation and lived experiences.
Mysophobia is often associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) as it tends to involve behaviors of compulsion and obsession, like repeatedly using hand sanitizer.
These two conditions may be co-occurring, but they aren’t the same.
Mysophobia is an irrational fear of germs. It can exist on its own or alongside another condition.
OCD is a mental health disorder where you feel compelled to perform repetitive behaviors as a result of recurring, disruptive thoughts or ideas.
OCD compulsions can be anything. You may need to repeat a certain number of scrambles every time you cook eggs, for example.
OCD compulsions can often include obsessions related to cleanliness, but the motivation behind them doesn’t always have to be contamination-related.
Intrusive thoughts about being criticized for not washing your hands regularly, for example, could contribute to an OCD handwashing compulsion.
Also, unlike mysophobia, distress in OCD may often come from not completing a compulsion.
This suggests OCD behaviors may be more ritual-based, occurring at predictable times due to recurrent thoughts.
In mysophobia, it’s a fear of germs that motivates your behaviors. That fear might mean a new pattern of behavior each day, based on the circumstances. Here are similarities and differences at a glance:
|obsessive handwashing whenever needed||ritual handwashing|
|excessive sanitation||a need for order and symmetry|
|fixation on cleaning||cleaning on a frequent schedule|
|avoidance of things considered “unclean”||intrusive thoughts about uncleanliness|
|fear of contamination||fear of contamination|
It can be challenging to spot the differences between OCD and mysophobia, particularly if primary OCD behaviors center on cleanliness.
The exact causes of phobias are unknown, though they tend to begin in childhood and are closely associated with the development of anxiety, mood, and substance use disorders.
Experts believe a number of factors may contribute to phobia development, including:
- adverse childhood experiences
- environmental factors
- exposure to a family member living with a phobia
A 2014 study of women in Pakistan found mysophobia was specifically seen more often in cases of trauma, compared with other phobias.
An international 2021 study on germ attitudes also found the level of microbial knowledge matters in germophobia. Experts noted an in-depth understanding of germs and microbes was beneficial in reducing and preventing mysophobia beliefs.
You don’t need an expert to tell you when you’re afraid of something.
However, when fears translate into impairing behaviors and distress, you may benefit from the support of a mental health professional.
A therapist can help you understand the causes behind your mysophobia.
Through a talk-based interview process, they can:
- evaluate mysophobia
- its level of impairment in your life
- the possibility for co-occurring conditions, like OCD
While you explore mysophobia with a mental health care team, you might consider trying to manage phobia symptoms at home by:
- asking yourself if what you’re afraid of in the moment is a rational fear
- working on facing your fears in small ways, like in your home or comfort zone
- cultivating relaxation techniques to reduce feelings of anxiety
- reward yourself when you overcome a mysophobia behavior
- ask friends and family members to offer gentle encouragement, not enablement
- join support networks, like online forums
Is mysophobia curable?
You may be able to overcome specific phobias with therapy and treatment.
How long this takes will depend on your experiences and any existing health conditions.
Treatment for germophobia
Specific phobias, including germophobia, often require a multidimensional approach.
Your healthcare team may recommend both medications and therapy options. Medications can help diminish certain symptoms you may be experiencing related to mysophobia, such as anxiety or panic.
From a psychotherapy perspective, phobia behaviors are often treated through a combination of:
Mysophobia is known by many names, all of which describe an impairing, distressing fear of germs and contamination.
While it can be natural to be cautious about your health and exposure to things that may make you sick, mysophobia goes beyond a rational sense of cleanliness.
Working with a mental health professional can help you understand germ avoidance behaviors and if there are other conditions, such as OCD, that may be influencing your actions. Mysophobia is treatable. With a holistic treatment approach, you can live a life that focuses on self-care in nurturing your mental wellness.