Bacteriophobia is a type of phobia that centers on an extreme and irrational fear of germs, dirt, or contamination. It is normal and prudent to be concerned about issues such as cross-contamination of foods, exposure to the bodily fluids of others, and maintaining good hygiene. However, if you have mysophobia, these normal concerns become overblown and disruptive to everyday life.
The condition is also known by other names including:
The phobia is often linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), but people who don’t have OCD can have it as well. The phobia is believed to be fairly common and can affect people from all walks of life.
This article discusses the symptoms, diagnosis, causes, and treatments for bacteriophobia, It also covers some of the things that you can do to cope with this type of phobia.
Common symptoms of bacteriophobia include behaviors that are used to avoid exposure to germs or contamination. These symptoms may include:
- Avoiding places that are thought to contain a lot of germs or dirt
- Extreme fear of becoming contaminated
- Excessive hand washing
- Obsessing over cleanliness
- Overusing cleaning or sanitizing products
If you have bacteriophobia, you may experience certain symptoms when you are exposed to dirt or bacteria. Such symptoms can include:
- Heart palpitations
These symptoms may occur only when the object of your phobia is visible, as is the case when digging in a garden, or when you believe that germ contact may have occurred, such as when shaking hands with someone or using a doorknob.
You may take multiple showers each day. You might carry and use hand sanitizer frequently. You may be unwilling to use public restrooms, share food, or take public transportation.
Bacteriophobia can lead to a number of behavioral and emotional symptoms such as avoidance, anxiety, and physiological signs of fear and panic.
It is important to note that bacteriophobia is not recognized as a distinct condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders . Instead, it would be considered a specific phobia if the symptoms meet a specific set of diagnostic criteria.
To be diagnosed with a specific phobia, symptoms must lead to:
- Avoidance or extreme distress
- Immediate anxiety response
- Unreasonable or excessive fear
Additionally, these symptoms must affect a person’s ability to function normally in different areas of their life. The symptoms must not be caused by another mental disorder and the symptoms need to be present for six months or longer.
Because people with bacteriophobia fear germs carried by others, the condition can lead people to avoid social situations. You might avoid expected gatherings such as work parties, holiday get-togethers, and meetings. When you do participate, you may find yourself avoiding physical contact and sanitizing your hands more frequently.
Over time, these behaviors can lead to isolation. Your friends and relatives might not understand, and they could perceive you as hostile or even paranoid. You could develop social phobia, in which you begin to fear contact with others.
The exact causes of bacteriophobia are not entirely clear, although a number of different factors are believed to play a role. Some things that can increase the risk of developing a phobia such as mysophobia include:
- A family history of anxiety, depression, or other phobias
- Experiencing a traumatic event that causes a person to become overly focused on germs, dirt, or contamination
- Having obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
Bactriophobia and OCD
Bacteriophobia is thought to be related to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD obsessions are repeated, persistent, and unwanted urges or images that cause distress or anxiety. These obsessions may intrude when you’re trying to think of or do other things.
Obsessions often have themes, such as:
- A fear of contamination
- A need to have things orderly and symmetrical
- Aggressive or horrific thoughts about harming yourself or others
- Unwanted thoughts, including aggression, or sexual or religious subjects
One of the most common symptoms of mysophobia is frequent hand washing, which is also a common symptom of OCD. However, the motivation for handwashing is different.
Bacteriophobia vs. OCD
People with OCD are compelled to relieve the distress they experience as a result of the non-completion of the act itself, while people with mysophobia are compelled to complete the act specifically to remove germs. The difference is subtle, and many people experience both conditions, so it is important to see a mental health professional for an accurate diagnosis.
Fortunately, mysophobia can be successfully managed. It is important to visit a mental health professional as soon as possible since the condition tends to worsen over time. Treatments that your therapist may recommend include medication, psychotherapy, or a combination of the two.
Medications are not usually prescribed on their own to address specific phobias such as bacteriophobia. However, sometimes medications may be prescribed to help manage some symptoms or to treat co-occurring mental health conditions. Medications are most effective when they are used in combination with psychotherapy.
Depending on your therapist’s orientation, you may be encouraged to explore the root of the phobia, or you may simply be taught how to manage the symptoms.
There are a number of types of therapy that can be used to help treat phobias, but two of the most effective approaches are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy involves identifying and changing the negative thought patterns that contribute to the phobia.
- Exposure therapy focuses on gradually and progressively exposing people to the source of their fear. Over time, people are able to learn to relax and the fear response begins to lessen.
Online therapy may be another option you might want to consider. Online therapy has been found to be effective in the treatment of a number of mental health conditions. Studies also suggest that virtual reality exposure therapy can be just as effective as real-world exposure therapy.
In addition to getting professional treatment, there are other self-help strategies you can use to help find relief. Some techniques you might want to try include:
- Deep breathing
- Getting regular exercise
- Getting enough sleep
- Gradually exposing yourself to your fear
- Lowering caffeine intake
- Mindfulness practices
You may also find it helpful to join a phobia support group where you can discuss resources and coping strategies with people who have had similar experiences. Check with local resources to see if there are any groups in your area or look online for available resources.