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Contamination OCD usually revolves around the fear of dirt, germs, and illnesses. Treatment can help you manage your symptoms.

Contamination obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is one of the most well-known types of OCD.

In mainstream media, people with OCD are often depicted as strict cleaners who wash their hands excessively and have extreme fears of dirt.

However, contamination OCD can be a bit more complex than that. It can include fears about illnesses, bodily fluids, and even more abstract “contaminants” like “bad” words, thoughts, or images.

It includes an obsession with these abstractions and the anxiety that comes along with them. Yet it also includes the fear of being “infected” with them.

Contamination OCD involves a lot more than simply being diligent about cleaning, and the symptoms can differ from person to person.

As with all kinds of OCD, treatment can help you manage the symptoms of contamination OCD.

OCD includes two parts: obsessions and compulsions.

Obsessions are persistent, distressing thoughts or images. Compulsions are activities or rituals you feel you must do to neutralize the obsession or soothe your distress about it

OCD can revolve around one or more themes, or major areas of focus. For some people, contamination is a theme. Others can include religion, harm, or symmetry.

Contamination OCD is simply one kind of OCD. It’s not considered a separate disorder or diagnosis. Research suggests that it can affect up to 46% of people with OCD.

Obsessions can revolve around the fear of:

  • dirt
  • mold
  • stickiness
  • food
  • viruses, germs, or illness
  • bodily fluids
  • chemicals
  • radioactivity
  • harmful substances like asbestos or lead
  • insects like maggots, fleas, or lice

These obsessions might center on the feeling of uncleanliness. They could also include doubt about whether something is really clean. You might have thoughts about how something could have been contaminated and how it might make you or someone else ill.

Compulsions could include:

  • excessive washing or cleaning
  • sterilizing or disinfecting things often
  • specific washing rituals
  • throwing things away
  • avoiding things you perceive to be dirty or contaminated
  • seeking reassurance from others to ensure you’re not contaminated
  • constantly checking food and items for dirt

Contamination OCD can also include the fear of more abstract “contaminants” like thoughts, words, or images that you perceive to be immoral or bad luck. You might use certain washing or cleaning rituals to “get rid” of those thoughts.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5) doesn’t distinguish between different types of OCD, which is why contamination OCD isn’t a diagnosis in itself.

In fact, some people might experience one OCD theme or multiple themes, and those themes can change over time.

The symptoms of OCD, as defined by the DSM-5, are obsessions and compulsions. In order to be diagnosed with OCD, you must fit the following criteria:

  • You experience obsessions, compulsions, or both.
  • You have obsessions or compulsions that take up at least an hour of your day.
  • You experience obsessions or compulsions that cause significant distress or affect your day-to-day functioning.

Contamination OCD specifically can include the following symptoms:

  • anxious thoughts about cleanliness, dirt, viruses, and “contaminants” of any kind
  • feeling the urge to perform certain cleaning rituals
  • strong feelings of disgust when you perceive something to be contaminated
  • excessive hand washing, showering, or cleaning
  • difficulty functioning in places you perceive to be dirty
  • constantly checking and re-checking to see if something is clean
  • needing reassurance from others that you are clean
  • throwing items away

If you think you might have contamination OCD, it’s best to seek out a therapist who is experienced in treating OCD. They’ll be best equipped to help you understand and manage your symptoms.

There are a few potential causes of OCD. Genetics seems to play a role in whether you develop OCD or not. Your personal temperament can also be a contributing factor for developing OCD.

OCD could be triggered by:

  • high stress situations
  • traumatic events
  • a traumatic brain injury
  • a bacterial or viral infection

That said, many people develop OCD for no clear reason.

The causes of contamination OCD are the same as the causes of any other type of OCD.

Previous research has suggested that those who are particularly sensitive to the emotion of disgust have a higher chance of developing contamination OCD. However, research from 2019 disputes this link.

While OCD isn’t “curable,” it is treatable. Research from 2017 noted the symptoms of OCD can be managed effectively.

There are a few different treatments for OCD.

Talk therapy

Talk therapy, also called psychotherapy, is one of the most common and effective ways to treat OCD. One kind of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), called exposure and response prevention (ERP), is particularly effective.

ERP helps you learn to stop engaging in compulsions. While this can be difficult in the short term, it eventually reduces the strength of the obsessions.

For example, ERP for contamination OCD could include avoiding your usual washing rituals or allowing yourself to get dirty.

Acceptance and commitment therapy, psychodynamic therapy, and imaginal exposure are also commonly used to treat OCD.

Medication

Some people with OCD benefit from using medication, but some do not. For people who do benefit from medication, their OCD symptoms can reduce by 40-60%.

One kind of medication that is commonly prescribed for OCD is selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These are prescription drugs often used for anxiety and depression.

While there are many treatment options for OCD, ERP and SSRIs are the most effective.

Although not a replacement for therapy or medication (if needed), self-care strategies can be helpful for people with OCD.

Basic self-care, like sleeping adequately and eating a balanced diet, can be helpful. Poor sleep and diet can worsen your mood, which can increase your stress levels and OCD symptoms.

Stress can make the symptoms of OCD worse, so engaging in healthy stress-management activities may help. This could include:

You might also benefit from using an OCD workbook, such as Getting Over OCD: A 10- Step Workbook for Taking Back Your Life or The Mindfulness Workbook for OCD.

Finding support can also be helpful. This could include talking with your loved ones about your symptoms and feelings.

If you think you’d benefit from talking with others who have OCD, you may want to check out the IOCDF OCD support groups list for local groups or the IOCDF online or telephone support groups list for remote support groups.

Contamination OCD is a common form of OCD. It often includes fears around dirt, germs, or illness, and it can involve excessive cleaning and washing rituals.

OCD can be managed with treatment. If you have or think you may have this condition, consider looking for a therapist who is experienced in treating OCD.

Finding a therapist can be a great first step in learning to manage your symptoms.