Germophobia (Fear of Germs): Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

Germophobia, also known as germaphobia, can simply be defined as the fear of germs. Generally, germs are microorganisms (like bacteria, viruses, fungi, or parasites) that can cause one to develop any form of the disease.

Psychologists often use this term to describe people who have an in-depth fear or anxiety about germs. Most people who suffer from this disorder often feel that the infestation of germs can cause you to die.

Although, in some cases, the infestation of certain germs can cause you to fall it, however, not all microbes are harmful. For example, we have certain microbes(mainly bacteria) that live in our bodies. These kinds of bacteria can’t do us any harm.

Germophobia can also be known by different terms such as bacillophobia, bacteriophobia, verminophobia, or mysophobia. It is important to note that part of the systems in our body is one significant one known as “The Immune System.”

The immune system is the system that is responsible for defending our bodies against germs. As we grow, our immune system becomes more potent, and this is due to the peaceful coexistence between the “good” and “bad” germs.

As kids, we once received something known as vaccination or immunization. This vaccination is simply the process by which a harmful microbe is introduced into the body system in a controlled manner. Once this microbe enters your body, your body releases specific soldiers known as antibodies.

These antibodies will, therefore, go to where these microbes are and eliminate them. As they do this, the body registers this microbe as a harmful substance, and as such, if you are exposed to this microbe later in the future, your immune system becomes strengthened to fight against it.

This goes to show that in some ways, we need the presence of harmful germs (although in a controlled manner) to strengthen our immune systems. However, when there is an infestation or uncontrolled presence of germs, it causes us to fall sick.

This is the reason why we need to maintain good health techniques in other not to be victims of these harmful germs. However, this doesn’t mean we should become exceedingly filled with anxiety and start having panic attacks, as seen in people who have germophobia.

Causes of germophobia

Germophobia, just like other phobias, have no known cause. However, there are certain factors that can contribute to the development of germophobia. These factors include:

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1. Traumatic experiences that occurred in childhood

It is often said that children don’t forget what they see. Most people who are experiencing or have experienced germophobia have usually indicated that they had a particular unforgettable traumatic experience with germs, which later on developed into a phobia.

For example, a person who has developed germophobia may have lost a loved one due to sepsis or may have been very sick while they were children, and their doctors related their sickness to the presence of germs.

2. Genetics (family history)

Most people in families who have anxiety disorders or have any phobia in the past may go on to develop specific phobias, including germophobia.

It is important to note that it is entirely possible for you to suffer from a type of phobia or anxiety disorder different from that which your other family members have suffered from.

For example, if you have a family history of schizophrenia or autophobia, you can go ahead to develop germophobia or any other phobia that there is.

This is because there is already the genetic disposition for you to develop phobias and anxiety disorders in general, and as such, it doesn’t matter which your family member(s) had suffered from; you may go on to suffer an extremely different kind of phobia.

3. Environmental factors

Usually, as children, we have been exposed to certain beliefs and traditions that can easily influence our minds concerning germs.

Some of us have been told all sorts of things about germs, and although some of these speculations are true, some of them, however, are simply based on assumptions.

These speculations can, in more ways than one, cause a child to excessively fear germs and later on in life, develop germophobia.

4. Brain chemistry

Sometimes, that are some certain changes that can occur in the functionality as well as the chemical composition of the brain.

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Generally, when you carry out a particular action all the time, your brain adapts to it, and suddenly, it becomes a lifestyle. This is the same thing that occurs when a person develops any type of phobia.

A person can develop germophobia, for instance, when all about the person’s lives and activities are targeted against ‘hating’ germs.

Suddenly, the changes in brain chemistry and the way the brain functions become normal, and as such, whenever the patient thinks or hears about germs, they will begin to have anxiety attacks.

Factors that trigger germophobia

Asides the causes of germophobia, there are certain factors that can trigger the brain of a person who has anxiety disorders to experience an ‘episode.’ These factors include:

1. Body fluids of another person

Often, certain people who have germophobia believe those body fluids produced from a person contain loads of microbes and, as such, can infect them.

Hence, when they see or mistakenly touch the body fluids of another person, it can trigger their symptoms.

2. Unclean objects or surfaces

One particular thing people who have germophobia often avoid is touching any object or surface that they haven’t certified clean.

For people who have germophobia, having to touch keyboards, doorknobs, unwashed clothes, table surfaces, and so on can cause them to have a full-blown panic attack.

3. Certain locations

It is common knowledge that germs are often around some places such as schools, hospitals, and even airports. Putting a person who has germophobia in such places can launch them into full-blown panic attacks and anxiety breakouts.

4. People

Germophobics often believe that people often carry a large number of germs around without knowing and, as such, try to avoid touching people intentionally or having body contact with them casually.

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They also believe that most people have certain unclean habits, and this usually makes them avoid contacts at any cost.

Symptoms

It is okay to have fears, especially where germs are concerned. However, in the case of people dealing with germophobia, they have more than just fears. They tend to often go to the extremes in avoiding or coping with their fear.

Often, for people with this disorder, their anxieties and distresses, which stem from an irrational fear of germs, cause more harm than what the germs would most likely cause in their bodies. The reason is not so far-fetched.

People who have germophobia are ready to do anything to avoid their fear, and this sometimes pushes them to unreasonable extents.

The common symptoms of people who have germaphobia experience can be classified into three groups, namely:

  • Emotional symptoms
  • Behavioral symptoms
  • Physical symptoms.

1. Emotional symptoms

Mostly, germophobia starts from the mind, and as such, these symptoms are typically the first you may see in a person who suffers from this disorder. The symptoms include:

  • Extreme terror and fear of germs
  • Worries, nervousness, and anxiety whenever they are being exposed to germs
  • The mere thoughts of being exposed to germs and other diseases can cause illnesses or other negative thoughts can germophobia
  • You may find that you often feel overwhelmed by situations that can result in the infestation of germs.
  • Extreme feeling of powerlessness to stop any microbe that may infect you.

2. Behavioral symptoms

These symptoms include;

  • You always have to leave places or situations because you perceive that they have exposed to germs.
  • Spending excess time having to think about, prepare for, or put off most conditions that you feel might involve germs.
  • Most times, you have to seek help to cope with your anxiety and conditions that might cause you to keep having this phobia.
  • Often, you have difficulties performing your basic duties at home, school, work, or any other place due to your paralyzing fear of germs. For example, if you find yourself always to fulfill the deep need of washing your hands everywhere, it may limit your performance in places where you perceive germs to be.

3. Physical symptoms

The physical symptoms of germophobia are often almost the same as the signs you would experience when having any other specific phobia. Often, these physical signs are not limited to places where you perceive germs to be in.

Sometimes, just the thought of germs and what they may do is enough to trigger these symptoms in the person who has germophobia. These symptoms include:

  • Racing heartbeats and pulse rates
  • Breakouts of sweat or chills.
  • Difficulties in breathing
  • Shallow breaths or shortness of breath
  • Pains or tightness felt in your chest
  • Dizziness and lightheadedness
  • Tingling felt in both the hands and legs.
  • Tremors and uncontrollable shaking of hands
  • Muscle tightness and tension
  • Restlessness
  • Lack of coordination
  • Headaches
  • Intense difficulties to calm down
  • Vomiting and nausea

It is important to realize that germophobia can often occur in children as well. As parents, the earlier you recognize the signs, the easier it is to treat your child.

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If your child is having germophobia, he or she will experience symptoms such as:

  1. Crying, screaming and uncontrollable tantrums
  2. Refusal to leave one’s parents which often results in clinging
  3. Nervous movements and lack of coordination
  4. Low self-esteem
  5. Difficulties in sleeping

Germophobia and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

One frequent question people often ask is if germophobia and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) mean the same thing.

Usually, although in some ways they are relatable, however, germophobia and OCD are two completely different disorders.

A person dealing with OCD will have persistent and recurring obsessions that, more often than not, lead to anxiety and panic attacks.

The feelings of uncleanliness that people with OCD have to deal with often cause them to have repetitive and compulsive behaviors that may bring them temporary relief.

People with OCD often have this deep need always to clean their environment. It is entirely possible to have OCD without having germophobia; likewise, it is possible to have germophobia without dealing with OCD.

However, it is also quite likely to be dealing with both germophobia and OCD.

The different, however, between these two conditions is that people who deal with germophobia are seen to always clean their environment in order to reduce the breeding of microbes while people with OCD often clean because they just feel like cleaning and as such, to reduce their anxieties, they are always doing one cleaning chore or another.

Impacts of germophobia on your everyday living

In people dealing with germophobia, the excessive fear of germs is enough to disrupt your routine lifestyle. People with this phobia often go to great lengths to avoid situations that will bring germs closer to them.

Engaging in activities such as attending an outdoor program, eating in a public place, or having sex is a no-go area for them.

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Places such as schools, work, and doing some actions like touching handles of objects, doorknobs, or having to shake hands with people are mostly avoided. Due to their anxiety, people with germophobia often wash their hands more frequently than normal.

It is true that washing your hands can reduce the tendency of having germs, however, carrying out this action frequently can become time-consuming and can make you lose focus on other essential things such as your work.

Treatment

Treatment of germophobia is aimed at making you feel more comfortable around germs just enough for you to go about your everyday activities without having to worry about them.

Treatment of germophobia can be grouped into three main categories:

1. Therapy

Therapy has been seen to be one of the most effective treatments of most phobias, including germophobia. Among the various therapies that there are Cognitive Behavioural Therapy as well as Exposure therapy has been seen to be most effective when it comes to treating phobias.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy mostly includes a series of skills that you can use when you feel your thoughts and fears about germs are starting to become overwhelming.

Exposure therapy, on the other hand, has to do with the processes by which the person who has germophobia is gradually exposed to his/her triggers.

The goal of exposure therapy is to let you get comfortable with your fears and reduce the anxiety levels you initially experience when confronted with these triggers.

2. The use of medications

In some cases where your doctor feels that therapy isn’t enough, he or she might prescribe certain drugs for you to use. Such drugs may include:

  • Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs)
  • Serotonin- Norepinephrine Reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs)
  • Beta-blockers
  • Sedatives
  • Antihistamines

3. Self-help

Self-help refers to your lifestyle changes and the applications of home remedies to help reduce your anxiety about germs.

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Sources;

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Deborah Akinola
Wirter, poet and public speaker

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