Most of us are familiar with the germ-fearing character of Dr Sheldon Cooper played by Jim Parsons in the CBS television series The Big Bang Theory. He is so apprehensive of germs and contracting an infection that he once even alienated his friend and moved to another table just because he sneezed. This fear of germs or contamination is termed as ‘Mysophobia’ and is very common.
“Mysophobia is often related to an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). These obsessions are persistent, repeated and unwanted urges that often lead to distress and anxiety. People with Mysophobia struggle to comprehend which situations are unsafe, as they feel vulnerable and panic even while encountering daily scenarios which may involve even a probable chance of coming in contact with germs,” says Dr Binita Priyambada, senior consultant, medical team at Docprime.com.
Patients suffering from Mysophobia take stringent measure to avoid contamination and tend to keep the spaces they visit or live in, spick and span.
People with a history of depression or anxiety in their family are at a greater risk of contracting a phobia. Some people may develop this condition after experiencing a disturbing event, while others may simply focus on germs as a repercussion to their anxiety. Some experts are of the opinion that increased use of products such as hand sanitizers, and toilet seat covers, that promote hygiene, have significantly contributed to the rise of this condition.
People suffering from OCD are also at a greater risk for suffering from the condition as they may have obsessive thoughts and apprehensions relating to germs and this may lead them to feel the compulsion to sanitise or clean their surrounding including the workplace or house in order to stay wary of germs.
What are the possible symptoms of Mysophobia?
*Avoiding places which are perceived as dirty
*Spending a lot of time in cleaning and decontaminating the surroundings
*Obsessively washing hands
*Refusing the use and sharing of personal items
*Avoiding physical contact with others
*Avoiding crowded places
*When a person is exposed to germs, they may experience symptoms such as an increased heart rate, shortness of breath, panic, sweating, etc.
Complications associated with Mysophobia
As sanitisation levels have arisen in wealthy economies, doctors and scientists have noticed that auto immune or allergic diseases such as asthma and inflammatory bowel disease have started becoming much common among children of these countries. “In fact doctors have found correlation between lack exposure to common contaminants in childhood and these diseases. Most doctors now agree that children need to be exposed to various microorganisms in the surroundings in order to build a strong and self-sufficient immune system from an early age,” adds Dr Priyambada.
David Strachan first elaborated on this in the year 1989, calling it the “hygiene hypothesis”. The hypothesis stated that “people exposed to a diversity of microorganisms early in life lower their risk of allergic diseases like asthma, eczema, seasonal allergies, and even autoimmune disorders such as arthritis or inflammatory bowel disease.” This hypothesis has gained a lot of acceptance in the last few decades. Therefore, going overboard with taking preventive measures such as excessive use of decontaminants and sanitisers, in order to avoid exposure to germs inhibits the full development of the immune system. This puts the patient at a risk of contracting multiple ailments when exposed to normal flora and fauna in their environment.
What it means for everyday life is that while bathing and hand wash and basic cleaning practices are good for health, various commercial products marketed as antiseptic hand rubs, antibacterial soaps, vaginal wash etc. are best avoided.
Diagnosis and treatment
If the fear of germs interferes with a person’s daily life and s/he finds it difficult to socialise then a therapist must be consulted. The patient may visit a therapist at the earliest for timely diagnosis and treatment. If the therapist concludes that a person is suffering from Mysophobia, he may ask the patient to undergo some therapy sessions. The patient may also be prescribed medications to ensure that the symptoms do not worsen or aggravate.
However, in order to receive optimal treatment, the patient will need to be open up to the therapist so that the extent of the problem can be determined and an accurate treatment plan can be curated and implemented.