Phobia of germs (mysophobia) is an intense, ongoing fear of germs and contamination. Learn more, including symptoms, causes, and treatment. Phobia of germs, also called mysophobia or germaphobia, is an intense fear of dirt and/or contamination. People with mysophobia feel extreme distress and anxiety if they encounter or even think about dirt, germs, and bacteria. They may go to
Phobia of germs, also called mysophobia or germaphobia, is an intense fear of dirt and/or contamination.
People with mysophobia feel extreme distress and anxiety if they encounter or even think about dirt, germs, and bacteria. They may go to extremes to avoid being “contaminated,” often in ways that disrupt their everyday life.
Learn more about mysophobia in this article, including symptoms, diagnosis, causes, treatment options, and coping methods.
Mysophobia refers to an intense, persistent fear of dirt and contamination. It is not a specific disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5). Instead, a phobia of germs is typically understood as a specific phobia within the broader DSM-5 category of anxiety disorders.
People with specific phobias often go to excessive lengths to avoid the source of their fear or experience extreme distress when they are confronted with it. They may be aware that their fear is irrational but feel powerless to control it.
Meanwhile, some people experience an intense fear of germs as an aspect of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Some people may have both OCD and a specific phobia of germs.
OCD is a mental health condition that involves both obsessions and compulsions:
For example, someone whose fear of germs is a symptom of OCD may compulsively wash their hands or clean household surfaces to reduce anxiety or try to prevent some dreaded event related to germs.
When they encounter or think about germs or dirt, people with mysophobia experience symptoms of anxiety and panic, such as:
In the face of their fear or anxiety, someone with a phobia of germs may:
If left untreated, the symptoms of mysophobia can have a negative impact on someone’s daily functioning.
For example, someone with an extreme phobia of germs may wash their hands or use hand sanitizer so frequently that their skin becomes cracked and irritated. Others may avoid social events, schools, workplaces, and/or outdoor environments because they’re afraid of catching a virus or coming into contact with dirt.
If you think you may have mysophobia, your healthcare provider can refer you to a psychiatrist or other mental health specialist. They can diagnose you with a specific phobia or other mental health condition, such as OCD, using the criteria in the DSM-5.
To meet the criteria for a specific phobia in the DSM-5, your phobia of germs must:
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), specific phobias are very common among American adults. Recent estimates suggest that about 12.5% of U.S. adults experience a specific phobia at some point during their lifetime.
Researchers have identified several possible causes for mysophobia and other specific phobias. These may include:
The following treatments have been found to be effective in treating mysophobia and other specific phobias:
In addition to mental health treatment, here are some ways you can cope with your phobia of germs:
If you or a loved one are struggling with mysophobia or another mental health condition, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.
For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.
Phobia of germs (mysophobia) is an overwhelming, persistent fear of dirt and/or contamination. People with mysophobia feel extreme distress when they think about or encounter dirt or bacteria. They often go out of their way to avoid potential contamination in ways that interfere with daily life.
Mysophobia is a specific phobia, which is under the category of anxiety disorders. People with a specific phobia experience overwhelming distress, anxiety, and/or panic about a certain object, situation, or activity. Some people experience mysophobia as an aspect of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Specific phobias such as germaphobia have many possible causes, including genetics, environmental factors, brain function, learned behavior, trauma, and comorbid mental health conditions. Treatment for mysophobia typically involves psychotherapy, especially exposure therapy, and/or medication.
Many people with germaphobia and other specific phobias feel ashamed or embarrassed of their symptoms. But there’s no reason to feel alone—phobias are extremely common. Your healthcare provider can help you find treatment options to reduce your anxiety and improve your quality of life.