The COVID-19 pandemic has understandably unleashed the inner germaphobe in many of us. Almost overnight, hand sanitizer topped grocery lists, masks became must-haves when leaving home, and plexiglass dividers popped up in stores across the country.
The pandemic also drastically changed hygiene behaviors. The possibility of contracting the coronavirus sensitized many people — who previously did not think much about germs — to the dangers of microscopic troublemakers.
But sometimes, the line between a “normal” concern about germs and a diagnosable fear of them can be hard to discern. After all, avoiding germs is a healthy practice. So, when does avoidance become problematic?
What is germaphobia?
Germaphobia, also known as mysophobia, is a term used to describe a pathological fear of germs, bacteria, uncleanliness, contamination and infection.
Although many people worry about spreading germs and catching diseases — especially now — those with germaphobia have fears that go beyond what is considered typical. They might go to great lengths to avoid contamination, such as spending excessive time cleaning and sanitizing, obsessively washing hands, or refusing to touch doorknobs.
Germaphobia vs. OCD
People with phobias may not think much about their feared situations unless directly confronted with them. People with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), however, experience ongoing obsessions and compulsions over those fears, even when not directly exposed.
OCD is a chronic mental health disorder that involves both persistent, intrusive thoughts and uncontrollable, repetitive behaviors. Obsessive fears of contamination along with cleaning and sanitizing compulsions is one of many subtypes of OCD.
It’s possible to have germaphobia without OCD, and vice versa. The key difference is that people with germaphobia clean to reduce germs, while people with OCD clean to reduce their anxiety.
How much is too much?
Dr. Prachi Karnik, an internal medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group, says the pandemic has had a profound effect on mental health due to increased stress and lifestyle changes. “Many more patients have reported anxiety symptoms and concerns about their mental health,” she says.
Those with OCD and other serious anxieties face uniquely difficult mental health challenges, including distinguishing concerns brought on by their conditions and general fears shared by the public about COVID-19.
If your life revolves around a fear of germs and contamination, your behavior may be more than just good hygiene. Yes, hand-washing can help prevent the spread of infectious diseases, but it doesn’t mean people should scrub their hands raw 20 times a day.
“I would be concerned if a patient is washing their hands so much that they are causing damage to their skin,” Dr. Karnik says. “In cases where a patient is doing damage to their health or their relationships with others, an evaluation by a mental health professional may be warranted.”
As COVID restrictions lift and in-person routines resume, it’s likely that heightened concerns and anxiety about germs will also continue. While it’s normal to be concerned about germs, excessive behaviors or worries might be a sign of something more serious if they start to interfere with your quality of life and relationships.