Germophobia is a term used to describe a pathological fear of germs, bacteria, uncleanliness, contamination, and infection. Germophobia, also known as mysophobia, verminophobia, and bacillophobia, is most commonly associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) but can present in a wide variety of people. Individuals with germophobia may feel compelled to excessively wash their hands and to take other precautions against contamination.

Germs are everywhere, and anyone practicing good hygiene and healthy living should take general precautions against contamination. Living life means sometimes encountering dirt, illness, or bacteria, but for some individuals, fear of coming into contact with germs significantly interferes with their lives. People with mysophobia struggle to evaluate which situations are dangerous, as they feel worried or panicked when encountering daily scenarios which involve germs. They will take extensive measure to avoid contamination or decontaminate themselves and the spaces they inhabit.

Causes of Mysophobia

People are at higher risk of developing phobias when anxiety or depression run in their family. Some people may develop mysophobia after experiencing a traumatic event, whereas others may start focusing on germs as a result of their anxiety.1 Some experts assert that the increased use of hygiene items, like toilet seat covers and hand sanitizers, has contributed to the rise of mysophobia in the United States. People with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are at higher risk for developing mysophobia because they may experience obsessive thoughts about germs and compulsively clean or sanitize their house or workspace.2

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Signs of Mysophobia

  • avoiding places perceived as germ-filled
  • spending excessive time cleaning and decontaminating
  • washing hands obsessively
  • refusing to share personal items
  • avoiding physical contact with others
  • fearing contamination of children
  • avoiding crowds or animals

When a person is exposed to germs or potential contamination, they may experience the physical symptoms of panic, such as increased heart rate, nausea, shortness of breath, sweating, etc. In order to receive a diagnosis, there must also be evidence that the fear of germs has interfered significantly with the individual’s daily life and relationships. A person with mysophobia will find that their interactions with others and ability to travel and to work is affected by the desire to avoid contamination or illness.

Treatment Options

Mysophobia is usually treated with therapy, medication, or a combination of the two. Antidepressant medications known as SSRIs are frequently prescribed to help manage symptoms of anxiety.4 Exposure therapy is also used to treat mysophobia, as individuals become gradually used to reversing behaviors in a way that feels safe and gradual (i.e. increasing time in between hand washing). Cognitive behavioral therapy can also help an individual test the reality of irrational thought patterns they have about germs and contamination. There are many mental health professionals who specialize in phobias, so never hesitate to speak up about your specific symptoms and how they impact your life.

Action Steps

Educate yourself – One of the challenges of overcoming mysophobia is learning to correct irrational thoughts you have about germs and contamination. Reading or watching videos about how bacteria are a natural part of our bodies and our environment can help you manage fear and worry. Education can also give you a sense of general hygiene requirements so that you can evaluate your own behaviors with what might be recommended by a doctor.

Find support – Millions of Americans suffer from a specific phobia, so take some time to check out what support is available to you in your community. In-person and online support groups can be an encouraging force in the lives of people who want to manage their anxiety about germs. Also, do not feel embarrassed to tell friends and family about your phobia and how they can support you in your treatment.

Recruit a professional – It is difficult to overcome a phobia without the help of a professional. Talk to your doctor or a mental health professional about what therapy approaches and/or medications could help you begin to manage your anxiety and reduce obsessive behaviors that inhibit your life. They may need to do further evaluation to determine if you have OCD or another anxiety disorder. If they don’t have experience working with mysophobia, don’t hesitate to ask for a referral to someone with expertise.

Though mysophobia can feel overpowering, it is a very treatable condition. With the right knowledge and support, you can begin to learn to manage your anxiety about germs and live a full and healthy life. What steps can you take today to regain control of your life?

If you think you or someone you care about may be suffering from Mysophobia (germaphobia), OCD, or any other mental health condition, PsyCom strongly recommends that you seek help from a mental health professional in order to receive a proper diagnosis and support. We have compiled a list of resources (some even offer free or low-cost support) where you may be able to find additional help at:

Editor’s note: Germophobia is also commonly spelled and referred to as germaphobia.

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Last Updated: Sep 12, 2019