Mysophobia: the Fear of Germs

Close up of hands being washed

Most people experience some form of irrational fear or anxiety, and many are concerned about germs and disease in particular. Amid a flurry of films and media reports about antibiotic-resistant infections and life-threatening flu strains, it’s easy to understand why some people actively worry about what they touch and breathe.

While concern about germs can motivate people to make health-conscious decisions such as frequently washing their hands, a serious germ phobia can drastically alter how a person functions and engages with society. Even actor and television host Howie Mandel concedes he has been unable to shake the grip of mysophobia—the technical term for fear of germs. Phobias are differentiated from general fears by degree. A person who is concerned about germs might wash his or her hands or get a flu shot, but a germ phobia can interfere with every area of life. Phobias are treatable, and people experiencing them should seek medical or psychological assistance.

Symptoms
The primary symptom of mysophobia is an irrational fear of germs. This can manifest differently in different people. One person, for example, might be fixated on a specific germ or disease, while another person might be afraid of germs and dirt in general. Common behaviors associated with mysophobia include:

  • Compulsive hand washing
  • Excessive use of disinfectants and antibacterial soap
  • Fear of physical contact with others
  • Extreme fear of getting sick
  • Reacting with extreme fear to media reports of new diseases
  • Fear of certain locations, such as doctor’s offices and airplanes, where germs or sick people might be present or confined

Effects
Mysophobia doesn’t simply inspire fear and avoidance. The phobia can be all-encompassing and life-altering. While people with mysophobia often recognize that their reactions are irrational, they can’t control them. They may avoid going out in public, developing intimate relationships, or eating food they did not cook. Because mysophobia affects so much of a person’s life, it can lead to other mental health issues such as depression, social isolation, and anxiety. Complete avoidance of germs can actually contribute to the development of health problems. Overuse of antibacterial and disinfectant products has been implicated in the spread of new, resistant infections, and children who are not exposed to germs are more likely to develop allergies.

Causes
No one knows exactly why people develop phobias, but mental health experts have developed a few theories. Some believe that people are more likely to develop phobias that protect from danger. These phobias include germ phobias, fear of large animals, and fear of heights. People who develop phobias may take these natural fears too far and react with extreme anxiety, placing them in danger they are believed to be trying to avoid.

Early experiences also can make a person more likely to develop a phobia. Childhood illness, the death of a parent, or painful medical procedures can condition a person to be extremely fearful of germs and to take extreme measures to avoid them. Phobias also tend to run in families; they may be genetic or simply learned from parents.

Treatment
Phobias are highly treatable and often require only a few sessions with a qualified mental health professional. Cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps people to reframe intrusive and phobic thoughts, can be extremely beneficial. Desensitization, a process whereby a person is slowly exposed to a frightening stimulus, also is highly effective. Some doctors may prescribe anti-anxiety medications to help people with mysophobia cope with their fears during treatment or to enable them to function in public. Some clients also experience success with hypnotherapy, often in only two or three sessions.

References:

  1. Audesirk, T., Audesirk, G., Byers, B. E. (2008). Biology: Life on earth with physiology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
  2. Overcoming your Fear of Germs. (n.d.). Fear of Germs. Retrieved from http://www.fearofgerms.com/
  3. Kring, A. M., Johnson, S. L., Davison, G. C., Neale, J. M. (2010). Abnormal psychology. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
  4. Phobias. (n.d.). U.S. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/phobias.html

 

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  • 42 comments
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  • Adrianna

    Adrianna

    October 24th, 2012 at 11:32 AM

    Seriously people, germs are everywhere!
    I abide by the theory that most of them only make us a little bit stronger and better able to fight off infection.
    I cringe to see the moms at the stores wiping down the buggies or aplying hand sanitizer to their kids every few minutes.
    Give me a break
    Yeah, they can cause harm but haven’t we survived worse than a cold over the centuries?
    Wash your hands after you go the bathroom, but stop making a mountain out of a molehill.

  • Slapbetcommissionermom

    Slapbetcommissionermom

    May 5th, 2013 at 1:50 PM

    You need to get toot facts in order Miss. You have no idea what you are talking about. There are people who are in danger of getting pneumonia from a common cold. So many various conditions that cause fatal illness from contacting a virus. Please do more research before you post

  • notthatpen

    notthatpen

    October 18th, 2015 at 7:09 PM

    Thank you. Thank you for mentioning the pneumonia part. Alot of ppl don t understand that real concept.

  • mtngirl78

    mtngirl78

    September 23rd, 2018 at 12:22 PM

    It’s not as easy as that. Some people who have health issues that make them prone to more serious illnesses (such as secondary infections after a cold or the flu) are very concerned about getting sick and I don’t blame them. I have asthma which is fairly mild and under control, however if I come down with a sinus infection it almost always goes into my chest and turns into bronchitis. I’ve also had pneumonia before and was in agony. I do not wish to go through that again so I take as many precautions as possible to avoid getting sick. Of course that’s not going to be possible 100% of the time, but anything I can do to minimize my chances I think is worth it.

  • mememememe

    mememememe

    June 26th, 2016 at 8:37 PM

    im terrified of being sick

  • arlene

    arlene

    September 26th, 2016 at 9:56 AM

    I don’t think you fully understand why people are afraid of this it is not funny and easy to get over I am terrified of germs I try keeping my kids clean and everything else I ended up depressed and extreme anxiety and no one is helping me get threw it

  • Beverly Mason, LPC

    Beverly Mason, LPC

    July 7th, 2017 at 8:15 PM

    Are you seeing a therapist? If not, find a good Cognitive Behavioral therapist to help you.

  • cdiff germ

    cdiff germ

    March 21st, 2017 at 6:26 PM

    I was diagnosed with recurrent c-diff. It is a bacteria that causes you to have diarrhea 3 or more times a day. You pass large amounts of mucous and you can bleed also with it. You feel tired, weak, sometimes upset stomach, anal pain, fever, lower back cramps. I am normally a clean person. I was not on any antibiotics, I have not visited hospitals or nursing homes, and I am usually clean. How I got this I have no clue. My doctors have no clue. I have inadvertently become a germaphobe. I lash out at family because I am scared that they will get this from me. I have washed my hands till they bleed, I clean constantly… and I do even more irrational things such as throwing my underwear away when I change them and throwing away wash clothes after I use them because I don’t want that in my washing machine to get my family sick… although I sanitize the machine after I wash my clothes.. This has taken over my life because I have no idea how I contracted it, where I may have contact with it. The doctors said I could have picked it up anywhere… more likely from someone who had it and didn’t wash their hands…. I could have picked it up from a cart, a door, or anything. I need help and I recognize that… but I don’t know where to turn because I live in such a crappy town with no good doctors. So yes I clean the carts, I bleach my hands, I buy gallons of germicidal bleach at Lowes, wear food gloves to peel, cut and cook food and much more. So until you know what some of us go through and have been through don’t judge.

  • Willa

    Willa

    May 6th, 2017 at 2:22 PM

    There is a cure for C-Diff, but I do not know how they figured it out or how anyone can take the cure. My friend did it and she is 100% cured with a fecal transplant. (BUT yuck!)

  • Kendall hopkins

    Kendall hopkins

    October 24th, 2012 at 3:43 PM

    If this is a true phobia, then you can’t just sniff at it and make it go away. These are feelings that are very deep seated and for many people take a lot of therapy to help them manage those fears.

  • Pete w

    Pete w

    October 25th, 2012 at 3:58 AM

    Have you found that phobias can be eradicated totally or is this something that you have to try to teach someone to live with and manage?
    I have a suspicion that if this terror is clearly rooted in their own personal relaity, or what they view as their reality, that it would be kind of hard to wane a magic wand and the fear would be gone.
    I can better accept that you may teach them to cope with the stress and anxiety that this fear brings on.

  • W.H

    W.H

    October 25th, 2012 at 4:39 AM

    I have some of the symptoms of mysophobia..although its not full blown like mentioned here I do get paranoid and even avoid shaking hands with people..I don’t think it is harming me in any way..should I still seek treatment for mild symptoms?

  • Andrea

    Andrea

    October 26th, 2012 at 12:46 AM

    @ W.H: I think many of us have a little bit of weird ness in us.and that is fine,seriously.but if you think your behavior is not warranted and is very different from what you think is normal then I’d say you may need to look for help.maybe you could talk to a friend and see if someone else also believes you are going into overdrive of your fear of germs?

  • Virginia

    Virginia

    October 26th, 2012 at 4:05 AM

    It is hard for me to be afraid of those things I can’t see

  • notthatpen

    notthatpen

    October 18th, 2015 at 6:59 PM

    Once you catch some super bug and your immuine system has been compromised …its easy to become a germ phone. Nowadays hardly anyone washes their hands. They’re too busy touching devices and texting…lol, but not funny. Sad actually.

  • MoonCheese

    MoonCheese

    October 26th, 2012 at 8:05 AM

    Its hard to understand why ppl act so paranid bout things.maintain proper hygiene n thts enough u dont ve to get rid of every microbe there,u just cant!at any time there are millions of them on our tables on our hands on our bodies,v gotta live with it!

  • Rose

    Rose

    October 26th, 2012 at 12:11 PM

    I’m not sure this is related but I developed a fear of getting sick (again) or getting others sick DUE to germs.

    I was caring for my 98 year old grandfather in a (supposed top notch) nursing home, along with my fiance at the hospital (battling S4 Ewing’s Sarcoma) at the same time.

    I was under tremendous stress so in all fairness to other posts, my resistance may have been low.

    During that time (while in and out of the hospital and nursing home), I noticed what looked like a spider bite and started feeling ill. I ended up out-patient IV antibiotic treatment, along with oral antibiotics for 2 months. It resolved. We thought. And came back with a vengeance a few months later.

    After that, I was so afraid I would get it again that I became hyper-aware of certain surroundings and more sensitive to public places that are known to harbor the bug (hospitals, gyms, public pools, athletic environments, etc). I even bleached my own home because I didn’t want anyone else to get sick because of me! (totally irrational, I know)

    However, the plain fact is that people are disgusting and dirty, and don’t practice proper hygiene nor do their caretakers. Add that to recent history where the medical community over-prescribed antibiotics and voila! Super bugs.

    I take offense to the mean-spirited, laissez-faire posts. It is a big deal, and it isn’t making a mountain out of a molehill. I have very good manners, etiquette and practice good hygiene. Yet, I got sick anyway.

    After you’ve suffered a bout with MRSA, re-post and let us know how you are feeling. Oh! and don’t forget to let us know how it felt when the doctor told you he had to start you on a serious regiment of IV antibiotics immediately (that make you sick as hell) because he didn’t want it to spread to your brain…good times.

  • T-PIADIGI

    T-PIADIGI

    October 9th, 2018 at 9:23 PM

    I am very late in finding this chat. I am so so relieved to read the posts of people who are suffering from mysophobia… I usually refer to it as germaphobe but I am happy to learn the actual name. I have been suffering for 3 years of this fear and every year it gets progressively worse. I too use bleach on my hands and in my home and I use lysol wipes when I use the washroom #2. My illness is also a bacteria which can cause serious illness and death to anyone but especially babies. It lives in the intestines and rectum and can move to the vagina in women. I literally want to die. Nobody I know has it but me and I CANNOT stop using bleach on my hands. They are raw. I can only go to the washroom at home because I fear I will get other people sick. I actually wish I could bleach my house top to bottom. I change my clothes every time I go pee or poo. And if I poo I need to take as many showers as I need to finally feel “clean” which I never feel “clean.” This illness is VERY real. I need help I know but it is so so difficult and expensive to get. Please do not judge us people suffering. We are fighting everyday we need support not judgment.

  • GoodTherapy.org Support Team

    GoodTherapy.org Support Team

    October 10th, 2018 at 8:24 AM

    Dear T-PIADIGI,

    If you would like to consult with a mental health professional, you can start finding therapists in your area by entering your city or ZIP code into the search field on this page: https://www.goodtherapy.org/find-therapist.html.

    Once you enter your information, you’ll be directed to a list of therapists and counselors who meet your criteria. You may click to view our members’ full profiles and contact the therapists themselves for more information. If you need help finding a therapist, you are welcome to call us. We are in the office Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Pacific Time, and our phone number is 888-563-2112.

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  • Penny

    Penny

    October 26th, 2012 at 11:41 PM

    Sad to know what happened,Rose.But it is not totally illogical to be scared about disease,falling sick,or even germs.these are real fear.It is because something is potentially harmful hat we are scared of it and that is not all that bad.

    And yes,sometimes even when we maintain hygiene others’ mistakes could cost us dear.Public bathrooms are a case in point and I refuse to use one,no matter how much I need to.There are many things like this that can stay in a person’s mind for a long time.But just don’t let it come in the way of your normal everyday functioning and all will be fine.

  • Rose

    Rose

    October 27th, 2012 at 11:10 AM

    Thank you Penny. Public washrooms are definitely places I try to avoid ;) (but I always have) I learned from this illness (after getting / working through a lot of inner turmoil…I felt “dirty” somehow) that I just had to be aware. After being so sick like that, though, I would rather hug someone “hello” over shaking their hand ;

  • todd

    todd

    October 27th, 2012 at 11:51 AM

    oh I hate them germs.it just grosses me out to know they are everywhere.yes we are never free of them but its always better to try and stay as far away as we can.constant cleaning rituals are no harm in my view and if some people have them then more power to them.we do not have to get into personal choices of people now.

  • Shaun.M

    Shaun.M

    October 28th, 2012 at 5:44 AM

    C’mon guys.We have many better things to worry about instead of those little germs.I mean how difficult is it to actually think beyond something that you cannot even see? Follow a few cleanliness habits and thats it.No extra precaution required!Dont be so obsessed,germ-phobes!

  • notthatpen

    notthatpen

    October 18th, 2015 at 6:48 PM

    You don’t understand. Julie’s comment might help.

  • FrankL

    FrankL

    December 1st, 2013 at 9:32 PM

    I suffer from Mysophobia. It started off as mild, but then grew to a more severe case once I started paying more and more attention to all the media reports (which are often all hype anyway). From my knowledge, mysophobia is not curable, but can be treated to where a case becomes manageable.

    The thing to remember is that germs are everywhere, but just because they are everywhere doesn’t mean they are guaranteed to make you ill. On top of that, you have an immune system for a reason. It’s not just there to fight illness, but it’s there to prevent it as well. Often times you can even have an illness and show absolutely no symptoms whatsoever. So hand washing is just one good line of defense. IF that fails, we still have a fantastic immune system that can prevent many illnesses anyway!

  • Julie

    Julie

    June 12th, 2014 at 1:07 PM

    Those saying “get over it” don’t understand. There is a biological/genetic basis. Brains are wired differently. It’s like a typical person standing on the edge of a 10-story building with a fire behind them. Their brain says not to jump because of danger. They have to override that. Imagine having to do that 100 times a day. Exhausting.

  • notthatpen

    notthatpen

    October 18th, 2015 at 6:46 PM

    Hi Julie. Thank you for your explanation..because it is exhausting maintaining a clean immediate environment. A friend of mine just caught a staph infection while in the hospital for something else. Another person I know got a staph infection from a hospital too and she also got an infection so bad her legs had to be amputated.

  • shay

    shay

    July 19th, 2014 at 3:34 PM

    Also there are many people out there who don’t wash their hands after using the bathroom and then go along touching door handles and shopping carts etc. I’d rather not come into contact with other people’s urine and feces regardless if it makes me sick or not.

  • Alexis

    Alexis

    September 23rd, 2014 at 12:44 PM

    You are right even if it doesn’t make me sick I don’t want to touch it.

  • Alexis

    Alexis

    September 22nd, 2014 at 12:56 PM

    I think it is perfectly normal to have the fear of germs. You will get over someday

  • Steve

    Steve

    January 8th, 2015 at 8:15 AM

    My main fear is leaving traces of germs from others on my clothing or onto my frequently-handled personal possessions that only I use(my computer keyboard/mouse, TV remotes, my glass of water, etcetera). I developed germ phobia I think very young. It started with not wanting to eat/drink what others ate/drank(most people have that & I think that’s logical), then progressed(about 12 years ago) to being conscious of the dirtiness of the chairs in various public places(like this clinic waiting room I was at then), then it got out of control around 2008ish when I began using hand sanitizers a lot &, for instance, when wiping with paper towels, stripping the 1st 4 towels, throwing them away, then washing my hands, then wiping my hands with the ones underneath(and then using those, crumpled, to shut the faucet off), and cleaning sleeves, etcetera that get “touched” by objects that might have been in contact by germs, whether in my own home or not. Prep for taking showers is a tremendous, day-long chore, so I don’t shower often(ironic, yes, for me(but “my” germs are “good”, I rationalize)). I can’t even hug family members without cleaning, so I don’t do that often(sadly), but they understand(I hope). Still I wish there was something I could do. Hypnotherapy I had 2 years ago helped a little, but that “wore off” & self-hypnosis has been useless. I’m autistic also, and “therapies”, I heard, don’t work on us. I wish this would just go away(everything wrong with me). My family doesn’t deserve this, and neither do I.

  • Christina

    Christina

    January 10th, 2015 at 4:24 PM

    I’m totally with u Steve; right now the gastro and flu are everywhere and its consuming me… It started out years ago as mild, I brushed it off as “normal”, but it slowly progressed and now I avoid social situations if I can. I try not to pass this behaviour and fear on to my child which is why I will most likely reach out to a therapist before it gets completely out of control. Would love to create a small support network for those who wish to connect. I will start a closed FB group; find it under “Living with Mysophobia”

  • Steve

    Steve

    January 11th, 2015 at 4:46 AM

    Christina, thanks, and best of luck if you do go the therapy route. I’m on full disability for autism, and like I said I’ve heard therapy doesn’t work for autistics(it hasn’t worked for me thus far). Luckily I don’t have any kids that have to deal with this, though I wish that I didn’t have to feel the need to avoid such things as giving my 73-year-old mother a hug. I’ll probably seek out another hypnotherapist in the spring who can maybe give me more helpful pointers on self-hypnosis.

  • Kimberly

    Kimberly

    October 19th, 2015 at 12:56 PM

    Thank you for this I’ve started this fear a year ago it’s killing me inside I’m telling you it’s really bad. I have anixnty
    With mine and it’s horrible my mine is the fear of catching a diease and it hurts my family life to I hurt my OWN MOTHER FEELINGS and other family members to with this and I’m a christain and it hurts to treat people like that you love

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    October 19th, 2015 at 6:00 PM

    Dear Kimberly,

    If you would like to consult with a mental health professional to discuss this or any other concern, please feel free to return to our homepage: https://www.goodtherapy.org
    You can enter your zip code into the search field to find therapists in your area. You are also welcome to call us for assistance finding a therapist. We are in the office Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Pacific Time; our phone number is 888-563-2112 ext. 1.

    Please know that help is available, and you may use our web site at any time. You can also find information about phobia on this page: https://www.goodtherapy.org/therapy-for-phobias.html

    Kind regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • A lonely girl

    A lonely girl

    May 30th, 2016 at 10:47 AM

    Mysophobia. It was about 10 months ago, right after I turned 16, that I was able to give a name to my fear of germs. I have always been very aware of germs, ever since I was a child, but it got worse after I got very sick- I was tested for mono, limes disease, and a bunch of other things and they basically just told me I have very very bad allergies. I read a book and the main character was a mysophobe- and everything he dealt with I had been subconsciously dealing with. The inability to touch a doorknob, panic attacks in crowded places, this overwhelming anxiety around anything that someone had touched. I clean everything constantly, shower daily, take off my street clothes before I enter my room. I was my hands extremely often but only after touching somethibg which might be contaminated. After I started doing all these things I have not gotten sick. But in all honesty I feel very alone, I have never met another mysophobe and I wish I could- I wish I could say “you understand me!” And not feel pressured to greet them with a hug or a hand shake.

  • Karan

    Karan

    October 24th, 2016 at 10:09 PM

    my wife is suffering from mysophobia from last 10 years and day by day she is highly into it she is not accepting that its a disease what to do how to live with her as it really feel so irritating to handle her situation she is not ready to take any therapy or medication as she thinks she is perfect what to do should i leave her as this phobia effecting my sex life my mind my tenion are growing each day please suggest what to do

  • Bern

    Bern

    March 17th, 2017 at 2:09 PM

    I kno now, I’m not alone!🎵 i wash my hands after using the restrm thn use papertowel to open the door, because what’s the sense in cleaning ur hands if you’re just going to pick up a million more once u touch the doorknob to go out after a thousand people before u who didnt wash their hands! Scarry

  • Felix

    Felix

    April 5th, 2017 at 1:02 PM

    I’m a huge germaphobe too. I notice people that don’t wash their hands properly at work and I avoid shaking their hands after that but trust me, they always come and say hi. I don’t mind, it’s only polite but I’d rather just have them not. I Clorox wipe things a lot and wash stuff in the sink that I’ll use in my own personal space (my room, my car etc). My car is only a 2 seater and with cloth/fabric seats so I avoid taking people in my car if they’re not worth cleaning the seat after (I put my dry cleaning there.) There’s so many more issues / triggers I have but I’m not going to list them all. I’m so weird, I know but I can’t help it and I don’t mind actually. That’s how my mind was programmed. It’s cool reading this page and seeing others w/ the same problems. I always thought I was just OCD clean but it’s nice to have a name for my condition so I can read up on it more and read other peoples comments w/ the same problem as mine. I always say that ignorance is bliss. Too bad we can’t ignore touching door knobs or shaking hands etc. :)

  • Zainab

    Zainab

    July 17th, 2017 at 2:57 AM

    I have diagnosed OCD, Mysophobia and General Anxiety Disorder. I am scared to leave the house and wash myself with bleach just so I can feel clean. I am going to see a therapist soon because of the time I had a mental breakdown in school after taking a bite out of my friends sandwich (I was trying to be brave and conquer my fear but failed miserably). To me, everything looks dangerous and at one point I thought my Biology teacher was a serial killer who was trying to gain my trust, kill me and make it look like suicide. I have so many Rituals its not even funny anymore: I tap all of my books and CD’s 6 times before I can sleep at night (Sometimes on bad days I have to do this more than once and I have ALOT of books and CD’s) I like to tap every streetlight 6 times whenever I walk past it in the street and if I miss any I will literally retrace my steps just so I can tap that streetlight (Which is one of the reasons I do not like to leave the house) and I like to tap any pen or pencil before I even pick it up. There are more but I don’t think anyone wants to read about them.
    Yes, I am aware of how muck of a weirdo/freak I am, but I want to share this so anyone with the same problem as me can know that they are not alone.

  • Felix

    Felix

    April 18th, 2018 at 1:01 PM

    I’m sorry to hear that! That’s very sensitive information you shared. Keep truckin though! Exercising might make you feel better? Just take a shower after.

  • James N

    James N

    January 20th, 2018 at 11:08 PM

    Now I must throw out my cross necklace and get a new one cause of my sister

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