Are you a germophobe? Typically, a fear of germs is actually not a phobia. Often, it’s is a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder known informally as “contamination OCD.”
A fear of germs often causes temptation to avoid people, places, or things thought to be contaminated. Sometimes the concern is about a specific disease like HIV or hepatitis or just general germs. Other times the contamination is less well-defined.
The impact of this type of OCD can vary widely. If severe and untreated, contamination OCD can even result in people feeling that their homes are too contaminated to continue living in.
Do You Have Contamination OCD?
How do you know if your germ concerns are a problem that needs treatment or a harmless quirk? Here are some tips. You may have contamination OCD if:
- your fear of contamination “spreads” from one thing to another and then another;
- attempts to rid yourself or your surroundings of contamination have caused you to be late to work, school, or other engagements;
- concerns about germs and disease have adversely affected your sex life or your romantic relationships;
- efforts to prevent or avoid contamination have significantly lengthened your daily routines;
- you hide the amount of time you spend washing, disinfecting, or otherwise cleaning;
- the time you spend cleaning or disinfecting has become excessive, or seems excessive to others.
Ultimately, the diagnosis of OCD needs to be made by a mental health professional — you’ll find information below on how to contact one.
The Impact of COVID-19 on Contamination OCD
The COVID-19 pandemic made almost all of us more concerned about germs. The whole world turned its attention to hand washing, disinfecting surfaces, and airborne contaminants. In some ways, the pandemic blurred the distinctions between those with OCD and those without. What effect did it have on those with contamination OCD?
For some with OCD, the pandemic triggered increased compulsions like cleaning and hand washing. For these people, taking the COVID vaccine often does/did little to reduce concern about COVID exposure. Cleaning and disinfecting rituals may not subside even though actual COVID risk has decreased.
However, for others with contamination OCD, the COVID pandemic has been a different experience. Many made little change to their cleaning routines in the spring of 2020 and watched (sometimes with amusement or satisfaction) as the rest of the world adopted some of the same cleaning and avoidance behaviors as them.
Don’t let fear of contamination run your life. The two “first-line” treatments for this form of OCD are medication and exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. Both treatments are quite effective.
Medication typically takes the form of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors such as Luvox, Prozac, or Lexapro. These medications are taken daily and can have some side effects. Typically the side effects are not severe.
Exposure and response prevention therapy is a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy. If you decide to do ERP therapy, you can expect to meet with your therapist once a week and be asked to do weekly homework exercises. These exercises will help you increase your ability to tolerate the feelings that lead to compulsions (such as washing or cleaning). The more you can improve your ability to cope with these feelings, the more your OCD will improve. Many are able to eliminate OCD symptoms altogether by the end of treatment.
As mentioned above, contamination OCD can sometimes become debilitating. Fortunately, different levels of care are available for such cases. Options include intensive outpatient care, residential programs, and inpatient hospitalization. These different levels of care can be for children, adolescents, or adults.
If you’re concerned that your fear of germs has gotten out of hand, consider having a consultation with a mental health professional who specializes in OCD treatment. At the Manhattan Center for Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, ERP is one of our specialties. Contact us if you’d like to learn more.
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