A germaphobe may go out of their way to avoid contamination and dirt. If this fear causes significant distress, it may be a sign of a specific phobia or OCD.

Many people like to have a clean environment. Many even have daily rituals to keep their homes neat and tidy. They may consider themselves “germaphobes” because they want to get rid of germs, but this doesn’t cause them anxiety or distress.

Someone with germaphobia may do things that look like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) behaviors. Not every germaphobe has OCD; it may simply be a part of their personality that doesn’t interfere with daily living. It may also be a sign of an anxiety disorder.

If germaphobia is causing you or a loved one concern, you can get help. Many people experience relief with talk therapy or medication.

Germaphobia is also called mysophobia. It’s when someone fears microorganisms and dirt. They may take extreme steps to stay clean by handwashing excessively and using a lot of hand sanitizer and antibacterial products.

Psychologists may diagnose a fear of germs as a specific phobia, which is a kind of anxiety disorder.

A person who likes things clean isn’t necessarily living with OCD or a specific phobia. They may also casually use the term “germaphobe” to simply mean they don’t want to come into contact with microorganisms.

If someone’s fear of germs is because of a diagnosable condition, some signs may be if the person:

  • actively avoids germs or dirt
  • cleans hands and surfaces excessively
  • experiences extreme fear of contamination

You can’t always tell if your loved one is living in a situation of extreme anxiety due to germs. According to a small 2019 qualitative study, some people may attempt to hide their OCD symptoms due to concerns about how their condition could affect their friends and family.

If you’re concerned about your fear of germs, asking if the fear causes you distress may be helpful. If so, you may want to speak to a mental health professional to see what help is available.

Fear of germs alone isn’t a symptom of OCD in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR).

To have a diagnosis of OCD, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) states that someone must have an obsession or compulsion that takes up:

  • a great deal of time
  • causes significant distress
  • interferes with work or social functioning

A fear of germs can be such an obsession, and the need to clean excessively may be a compulsion that comes from that obsession. But if this doesn’t disrupt a person’s everyday life, they won’t receive a diagnosis of OCD.

Do all germaphobes have OCD?

Not everyone who fears germs has OCD. This fear might not make daily life challenging. The DSM-5-TR requires that an obsession or compulsion take up at least an hour a day to meet the diagnostic criteria of OCD.

But even if someone doesn’t have OCD, fear of germs can cause significant distress if it’s a specific phobia, a type of anxiety disorder.

According to the APA, 8% to 12% of Americans live with specific phobia. If a germaphobe has a specific phobia, they have an excessive fear of germs.

Specific phobia isn’t the same as OCD. In fact, if a person’s thoughts or behaviors can be explained by OCD, it’s not considered a specific phobia. To meet the criteria of specific phobia, a person must:

  • almost always experience immediate fear or anxiety from the subject of the phobia
  • actively avoid the subject for 6 months or more
  • experience clinical distress or social impairment

Also, the person’s fear must be out of proportion with the actual threat. In the case of germaphobia, someone’s anxiety about germs must be much greater than the harm they could cause.

Specific phobias and OCD are both treatable conditions. Talk therapy and medication are treatment options.

Treatment for specific phobias

Behavioral therapy is one treatment option for specific phobias. This involves gradual exposure to the object of fear in a controlled environment.

Treatment for OCD

Medication, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), is one option to treat OCD.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is another option, where people are exposed to the object of their obsessions but instructed to not perform their usual compulsions.

Many people like to keep things clean and avoid germs. And that’s OK, you’re not alone.

If this becomes a fear of germs or causes distress in your daily life, a doctor may diagnose a specific phobia or OCD. These are both treatable conditions.

With the right support, you can improve your quality of life. To find resources for mental health, check out Psych Central’s Find Help page.