Germaphobia: When does cleanliness become a disorder?

Wanting to be clean is normal, right? But for some people, the desire for cleanliness can descend into germaphobia. So, when does distaste become a disorder?

With health officials urging us to wash our hands, wear face masks and stay home to avoid a life-threatening virus, it’s easy to become obsessed with germs.

But if the idea of using a public loo fills you with terror, you’re buying hand sanitiser in bulk and you’re planning on ditching the office Christmas party so you don’t have to mingle with your germy colleagues, maybe your obsession is getting out of hand.

Here’s how to tell when healthy germ-avoidance behaviour crosses the line into germaphobia.

What is germaphobia?

Germaphobia is a term used by psychologists to describe a pathological fear of germs, bacteria, filth and infection.

There have been plenty of high-profile germaphobes through the years.

Nikola Tesla became obsessive about germs after a near-fatal case of cholera as a child, and billionaire aviator Howard Hughes died a recluse in a darkened hotel room he considered a germ-free zone.

How to tell if germaphobia is getting out of hand

Psychologist and director of phobia clinic Mind Up, Shawn Goldberg, says many of us have an aversion to being dirty, but for germaphobes, the irrational fear of contamination becomes a compulsion that takes over their lives.

“Germaphobia is debilitating, and includes a high level of avoidance and behaviours like excessively washing hands and cleaning the house, to the point that it severely interferes with the ability to function,” he says.

Germaphobes may avoid touching people or objects, visiting family and friends, or attending social events, school, work, or even the doctor.

Psychologist Dr Malcolm Winstanley Cross says up to 12 per cent of the population suffer from phobias such as germaphobia, which trigger intense fear and distress.

“The physiological consequences of fear and panic are real, they can be measured in terms of heart rate and breathing, sweating, tingling in the extremities, feeling faint, and disrupted digestion,” he says.

What causes germaphobia?

The exact cause of germaphobia is not known, but risk factors include a family history of anxiety, depression or phobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or a traumatic experience.

Some mental health professionals believe our pandemic-driven fear of contamination and germs has increased the prevalence of germaphobia in the community.

A 2020 study found that stress and anxiety as the result of the pandemic may worsen mental health issues, or even cause mental health problems among those previously unaffected.

Dr Winstanley Cross says he has noticed an increase in the number of people presenting with issues related to the fear of Covid-19.

“The pandemic itself and everything associated with it is unfamiliar, and our inability to predict what is going to happen next elevates our levels of stress and anxiety,” he says.

Can germaphobia be treated?

Dr Goldberg says germaphobia can be treated successfully, and the first step is to identify and accept the problem.

“Ask friends if they think your behaviour is irrational, and once you get a gauge and know it’s interfering with your life, seek professional help,” he says.

Mainstream treatments include cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), medication, and anti-anxiety strategies such as meditation and relaxation techniques.

“Cognitive work focuses on helping people distinguish between problems and worries and taking proactive approaches to problem-solving while teaching them how not to engage with those worries,” Dr Winstanley Cross says.

“Physiological interventions include muscle relaxation training and breathing exercises – in essence teaching them how to relax.”

He says if you have suffered from germaphobia for a long time, not to be disheartened.

“Some people think because they’ve had it forever, it will take forever to get rid of, but that’s not true,” he said.

“The duration of a phobia or fear is no predictor of how long it will take to resolve with help.”

Written by Dimity Barber.