Germ phobias are exaggerated and often debilitating fears of germs. These fears are part of the anxiety spectrum and often are symptoms of OCD, although they can also exist on their own. Germ phobias often manifest with both obsessive and compulsive components. When a person suffers from germ phobias, he or she obsesses about germs in the environment and/or on the body and will spend large amounts of time compulsively cleaning the surfaces and objects that are the focus of the contamination fears.
The compulsive cleaning is a ritualistic attempt to relieve the anxiety caused by the obsession over germs. Often, germ phobias entail a sense of loss of control over the safety of the environment in terms of hygiene and a fear of contamination. These phobias and related compulsions are often connected with a sense of shame or embarrassment, as the person suffering often realizes at some level that the obsessions and behaviors are unreasonable yet are unable to control them.
Types of Germ Phobias
Some germ phobias have a generalized focus, where the object of fear is the vague universe of germs that is all around. This is a very difficult state for the person, as he or she will find most social or public interaction close to unbearable. Often, people with generalized germ phobias or contamination fears will avoid public situations that would entail the inability to avoid coming into contact with germs or to remove the perceived contamination once it has occurred.
People with this condition might find it impossible or highly stressful to have to share cutlery, even after it has been washed, or to shake hands. Generalized germ phobias can make work and social relations extremely difficult, and can result in job loss and damage to social networks, which can be a blow to the individual´s self esteem.
Other germ phobias focus on a specific type of germ or disease. Common diseases that are the focus of these fears are HIV/AIDS, E. Coli, Listeriosis, Tuberculosis, and Hepatitis B or C. People suffering from these fears might not feel the need to avoid social contact all together, but may experience high avoidance impulses directed towards people or situations where they feel they might run into these germs. For example, a person with HIV/AIDS phobia might have a very difficult time having blood drawn, using public bathrooms, or associating with people who the person believes fit a stereotype as having a high risk of carrying the HIV virus.
Typically the focus of the avoidance is on things or situations that are trivial, common, and do not impart any risk, such as using toilet seats, rather than on instances that impart actual risk. While the person suffering from the phobia often knows that these fears are all scientifically unfounded, he or she is unable to make the necessary step from intellectual knowledge of this fact to the elimination of the obsessions and compulsions due to dysfunctional feedback loops in the brain that don´t allow this information to be “updated”.
Treatment for Germ Phobias
One of the most effective treatments for germ phobias is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), sometimes in conjunction with psychotropic medication. CBT retrains the mind to recognize the dysfunctional feedback loops and replace those loops with logical ones. This is one of the most effective and widely-used therapies for OCD and related conditions.