The Difference Between Germaphobia and OCD

It started with washing your hands after the restroom and before cooking. Now you wash your hands and use a hand sanitizer as often as possible to ensure no germs are on your skin. It is to the point where you smell your hands to be sure they smell clean even after this process is complete. 

It’s gotten worse. You got rid of every hand towel in the house that collects bacteria throughout the week and replaced them with disposable paper towels so you do not cross-contaminate. This gets rid of the fear of catching anything from anyone else. Shopping cart handles are sanitized, you sanitize after the store, and sanitize at the gas station. When you get home, you wash your hands and the cycle repeats. 

Even your dry and cracked hands from overcleaning are not enough to break your cycle. There is no harm in staying hygienic, is there? Your fears of germs and getting sick can feel overwhelming. Maybe now it is affecting your mental health. One small thought led to a compulsive habit. How did you get here? Is this germaphobia or OCD?

These two conditions can present similar symptoms, though they are different. Understanding the differences and whether you simply have an irrational fear of germs or if you have a serious mental health condition driving your cleanliness habits can help you get the proper treatment. Support from mental healthcare professionals can help you move forward and overcome the effects of your condition.

What Is Germaphobia?

According to Frontiers in Psychology, germaphobia is a compulsive aversion to microbial exposure that could potentially contribute to disease, viruses, and chronic illnesses. The medical term can also be known as mysophobia. In other words, germaphobia is an extreme fear of germs. The condition can cause a profuse obsession with avoiding contamination. 

Symptoms of germaphobia may include: 

  • Excessively washing hands or washing them for long periods
  • Repetitively using hand sanitizer
  • Overusing antibiotics
  • Minimizing time in public
  • Cleaning any touched items in public places
  • Avoiding physical contact
  • Fear of contaminated food
  • Taking multiple showers a day
  • Refusing to share personal items
  • Anxiety 
  • Limited productivity due to rituals associated with maintaining cleanliness 

If an individual with this condition even thinks they’ve been exposed to viruses, dirt, or bacteria, they may experience mental distress and extreme discomfort. A few internal symptoms may include an increased heart rate, sweaty palms, or an emotional response such as crying. 

The Link Between Germaphobia and OCD

The ritualistic steps and behaviors an individual may take to avoid germs can worsen over time, leading to a mental health condition called obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). This can significantly affect a person’s quality of life. OCD is a disorder where an individual has recurring unwanted thoughts—obsessions—that drive compulsive behaviors.

Obsessions can result in compulsions or repetitive rituals to help the individual cope with the anxiety caused by their thoughts. Repetitive behaviors may include hand washing, cleaning, checking things, or counting certain activities, objects, or movements. These behaviors may be highly difficult to control without seeking medical attention from a mental health professional. 

OCD is not the same condition as germaphobia, but germaphobia can present as one of the symptoms of OCD. People with OCD may experience obsessive and compulsive cleanliness as part of their disorder, but germaphobia does not, by itself, indicate that an individual has a mental health disorder.

Origins of OCD

The cause of germaphobia is unknown. Risk factors such as an individual having a family history of depression, phobias, anxiety, brain abnormalities, and OCD can result in this condition. Environmental factors can play a huge role as well. This may include emotional trauma related to uncleanliness or germs. 

The cause could stem from being exposed to a person that carries certain viruses or illnesses. If a loved one passes away due to a contaminated environment, this could cause obsessive cleaning behaviors to protect oneself from bacteria and microorganisms. For example, if a person catches a virus such as COVID-19, they may develop germaphobia after recovering from the illness in an attempt to prevent recatching the virus. 

Helpful Strategies to Cope With OCD and Germaphobia

There are a few self-help practices individuals can use to manage the mental health effects of germaphobia and OCD. One of the best ways to stay in charge of this condition is to take time to reflect and understand where these anxious feelings are coming from. Researching the driving factors of the condition can help individuals recognize the signs of the disorder to understand what to expect.

Practicing holistic mindfulness techniques such as meditation and yoga can work to relieve the symptoms of stress and anxiety associated with these conditions. Reaching out to family and friends can provide emotional support. Family members and doctors may be able to provide direction in finding the mental health treatment needed to overcome the challenges one may be currently facing. 

Path to Treatment

Seeking support from a professional can greatly improve one’s experience with germaphobia or OCD. In accordance with the severity of the disorder, a mental healthcare professional can develop an effective treatment plan to provide extra help for those who need it most. Certain behavioral therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), exposure therapy, medications, and self-help strategies learned in each session can be of great benefit. 

Germaphobia is a compulsive aversion to germs, viruses, and bacteria that could lead to an illness. If this condition is left untreated, an individual may experience obsessive thoughts and behaviors to ensure they are protected from germs. Learning new self-help practices and seeking professional help through a mental health care specialist can greatly improve the symptoms of your condition. As a licensed and Joint Commission Accredited Mental Health Treatment Center, 12 South Recovery is a leader in Orange County mental health treatment. With our in-house team of expert therapists, we strive to provide compassionate, individualized care using the most cutting-edge, evidence-based modes of treatment for mental illness. If you are seeking professional support, call 12 South Recovery at 866-839-6876.

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