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Mysophobia: Living With The Fear Of Germs

Updated on October 22, 2014
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Mysophobia is not a laughing matter

When I tell people I'm scared of germs, most of them laugh like it's a big joke. They think of Monk and how funny he made it seem. But it's not a laughing matter. It's an actual medical condition called mysophobia and it affects every single moment of my life.

Being scared of germs means I can't have a normal relationship with my husband. It means I can't have many friends. It means I have to be on high alert at all times. It means I have to do a lot of extra work. And it means I have to miss out on a lot of things most people take for granted.

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The difference between mysophobia and having a healthy fear of germs

I'm going to assume that you have a healthy fear of germs. By that, I mean you don't want to get sneezed on, but if someone does happen to sneeze on you, you can just wash it off and go on with your day. You don't want someone to cough in your face, but if someone does cough in your face, you can just turn your head away and go on with your day. You normally wash your hands before you cook, but if you get halfway through cooking a meal and you realize you forgot to wash your hands, you can just wash them and keep cooking.

For a mysophobe, none of that is possible. If someone sneezes around me (it doesn't even have to be on me), I stop breathing. But I don't do it consciously. It feels like my throat closes and I just can't breathe until I run outside where there is fresh air. The same thing happens if someone coughs. And if someone were to sneeze or cough on me, I would have to scrub my skin with soap and then wipe the area down with alcohol. Once, someone sneezed on my face. I threw up. If I were to forget to wash my hands before cooking, the entire meal would be thrown away. In fact, I once threw away an entire meal because someone came into the kitchen and coughed while I was cooking. And when I cook, even if it's something that has to simmer for 4 hours, I have to stay in the kitchen the whole time to make sure nobody contaminates the food.

That's the difference between mysophobia and having a healthy fear of germs. For a mysophobe, avoiding germs is the most important thing in their life.

Just a quick question

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The cause of my fear

I haven't always been scared of germs. I actually grew up quite normal. But then when I was 18, I moved in with my first husband and his mom. It was disgusting. His mom had this nasty, rapidly spreading rash and she wouldn't go to the doctor. The dog had a cut on his tail that wouldn't heal and every time he wagged it, blood would fly everywhere. The house itself was dirty and no matter how much I cleaned, it wasn't good enough.

This is when I started becoming aware of how germy people are.

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What it means for me

I'm not scared of every type of germ. I'll pick up bugs, play with the dog and dig in the dirt with no problems at all. My fears are focused on what I call people germs. I believe everybody, including me, is just riddled with germs. Most people take that to mean that I think they're dirty, so they take offense. But that's not what I think. I just think they have germs.

Let me put it like this. When you think of the word germ, what do you think about? Does it affect you at all?

It makes me feel sick to my stomach. When I think of germs, my mind conjures up images of disgusting little creatures crawling all over people just waiting for the chance to get on me. When someone coughs, sneezes, talks or breathes with their mouth open, in my mind I can see millions of germs flying through the air and attaching themselves to me. There are times when I think I can actually feel them on me.

It gets even worse when it comes to milk products. For some reason, I see milk products as being a germ paradise. I imagine them swimming around having a little hayday until they can get in my body and infect me. I'm okay as long as I'm eating by myself and as long as I eat the milk product within 3 minutes of getting it out of the fridge. But if someone comes in the room and I'm eating a milk product, I know my food is instantly contaminated, so it gets thrown away.

In case you're wondering, I don't obsessively wash my hands. I do wash them more often than other people, but if I feel dirty, washing them once is good enough for me (as long as I can dry them on my own personal towel).

Mysophobia and OCD

It can be easy to confuse Mysophobia with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder because both involve the same activities, like hand washing. But it's important to remember that the root causes of hand washing in mysophobes and obsessive compulsives are different. A mysophobe washes his or her hands repeatedly out of fear of contamination, while obsessive compulsive patients wash their hands because they feel like they have to in order to maintain the order of their lives.

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Dinner with me

I normally don't eat around anyone. It's too hard and I can never finish a meal. If someone coughs or sneezes, even if they are across the room, I have to throw my food away. If someone breathes too close to my food, I have to throw my food away. If someone nearby talks to me, I have to throw my food away.

Plus, I have a hard time eating food that someone else cooked. What if they didn't wash their hands? What if they double-dipped when doing a taste test? What if they coughed while the food was cooking? There are just too many questions. So if someone else cooks, I'll usually just make something else for me. The only time this doesn't apply is when I'm eating out. Most of the time I have no problem with eating out. Unless I know the place isn't clean, I generally trust professional cooks. My biggest problem when eating out is with the other customers. I can't believe how many people sneeze and cough without covering their mouths, especially around food.

I'm extremely sensitive about milk products. If I'm eating a milk product and my husband comes in the room, I'll yell "milk product!" and he knows to just turn around and leave.

My food is kept separate from everyone else's food. I have my own fridge and my own food cupboard. I have to have my own jug of milk, my own jar of jelly, my own jar of peanut butter, my own loaf of bread, etc. If I even suspect someone got into my food, I'll throw it out. I even have my own salt and pepper shakers, which I keep on the highest shelf in a closed cupboard so they have a better chance of not getting hit if someone sneezes. When I cook too much and I know there will be leftovers, I put some in my fridge before anyone else even knows supper is ready. That way no one has the chance to breathe in my food.

I can't drink out of glasses or cups. I can't even drink out of a soda can. I only drink out of plastic water bottles that I can close or cups that have lids (although I recently discovered these cool soda can covers so now I can drink canned soda!). And if I accidentally leave my water bottle in a room when I walk out, it gets thrown away because I'm too scared someone might have drank out of it.

It's not you. It's me.

This bad break-up line actually holds a grain of truth when it comes to my mysophobia. It doesn't matter if you shower 10 times a day, brush your teeth every 2 hours and wash your hands every 5 minutes. In my eyes, you'll still have germs.

Living with me

I'm very lucky because my husband, John, is completely understanding about my mysophobia. The best thing is his attitude towards it. After 5 years, he knows it's real and he knows it's serious. He also knows how bad I feel for making him put up with it. So he does his best to make me feel better while still giving me my space. And I know it's hard for him because he never knows if I'm having a good day or a bad day.

You see, I also suffer from Borderline Personality Disorder. And when I'm having a hard time handling my BPD, the mysophobia gets worse. There's been days when he can't even touch me; days when he can't even kiss me on the cheek; days when he can't even be near me because I'm so scared of getting his germs. His response to my bad days is what makes him the best husband in the world. If I don't let him kiss me or touch me, he'll say "That's fine right now, but I get extra later." and then he'll laugh and leave me be.

I know he puts up with a lot and it makes me love him even more.

I don't even want my own germs!

An Update

It's been 3 years since I originally wrote this article and in that time, some things have changed (mostly due to our living arrangements). When I wrote this article, I was living with 4 other people who couldn't care less about germs. This made me hyper sensitive and was reflected in my extreme behavior.

Today my husband and I live alone and since I know he understands about my germphobia, I'm able to let my guard down a little. Although I no longer require my own food cupboard and my own refrigerator, I still need to have my own food. So we separate our food with tape. Anything with blue tape on it is mine and off limits. Some foods we share. And by "share" I mean if my husbands wants some, he asks me and I get it for him. My husband still isn't allowed to cook because I just don't trust it. And he's not allowed to clean because I want to make sure everything is cleaned thoroughly.

Today, I'm (sometimes) able to eat around (some) people. My husband and I eat together most nights and sometimes I can sit down for a meal with my Dad and Grandma. They're very understanding about my Mysophobia. They let me get my food first, before it's even on the table and they don't get offended that I keep my food and drinks covered. I even went to Thanksgiving dinner with the entire family and although I got some weird looks for loading my plate up before setting the food on the table, I survived. I'm finally able to drink out of glasses. Once I found that Betty Crocker frosting lids make a perfect lid for our glasses, I stopped buying plastic bottles. I'm still very picky about milk products. My husband can be in the room, but (and we laugh at this) that means I've never been able to finish a meal with milk product because it's inevitable that he'll sneeze or cough.

The one thing that's gotten way worse is that I'm no longer able to kiss my husband. Little pecks are okay but my stomach turns if he tries to open his mouth. He gets upset about it and I feel horrible about it. But so far, he's still understanding. Every day I thank my lucky stars that I have him.

Want to read more?

First Person Accounts of Mental Illness and Recovery
First Person Accounts of Mental Illness and Recovery

Although this book contains information about many lesser known mental illnesses, starting on page 133, it also tells more of my story.

Learn how my behavior slowly changed and about how I slowly came to the realization that something was wrong with me.

Get an in depth view on my extreme behaviors and the thoughts that encourage them.

Read about my fears concerning the effect my mysophobia has on others.

And most importantly, learn how to help a friend or family member who's mysophobic.

 

© 2010 Othercatt

I hope I gave you a better understanding of a much-too-often mocked fear. What are your thoughts on Mysophobia?

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    • Brite-Ideas profile image

      Barbara Tremblay Cipak 3 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      Howie Mandel syndrome :) - couldn't imagine having to deal with this!

    • Gypzeerose profile image

      Rose Jones 4 years ago

      Another amazing lens. Pinned to my mental health and mental illness board. I remember meeting a woman at a group that I went to who said she had to stop coming because we had opened up part of an entirely separate part of the building to homeless youth. She was cool, she realized that her fears were irrational but she couldn't do anything about it. So cool that your story is out for the public to read.

    • treasuresabound profile image

      treasuresabound 4 years ago

      This is a well written article on mysophobia. I always thought it was a part of OCD. Thanks for enlightening me and I am so proud of your husband who has been so understanding thus far. Wishing you the very best moving forward.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      I didn't really know much about Mysophobia. Thanks for sharing.

    • kindoak profile image

      kindoak 4 years ago

      Thanks for writing about this. I hold my breath when I pass someone who who has a cough, runny nose or even bleary eyes. Oddly, this only applies to people I don't know - like shoppers at the grocery store. I also wash vegetables and fruit like crazy before eating them. That is probably like most people do... but living with Mysophobia sounds like it must be quite troublesome. You seem to have learned to cope with it though. Extra hug to your husband for being supportive!

    • kburns421 lm profile image

      kburns421 lm 4 years ago

      I always admire it when people open up here on Squidoo, so thank you for sharing your story. Even when someone does not live with the same condition, sometimes they can still relate in some way and feel like someone else understands. It is sad that so many serious fears and conditions are just mocked instead of being understood. I'm glad you have found a husband who is understanding.

    • profile image

      JMsquidoo 4 years ago

      As someone with mysophobia and OCD I can relate to this. I am 19 and struggle living with my parents who IMO aren't as hygienic as I believe they should be. I am afraid of public places, e.g. buses, banks, shops etc.

      The germs that I fear are the same as this article refers to: 'people germs'. In particular, bodily fluids (urine, wastage, and other bodily fluids).

      I wash my hands after and before certain activities numerous times throughout a day.

      I wash my hands before touching food, before applying facial moisturiser, after touching the ground, after touching my feet, after touching my shoes, after touching money.

      I have quite serious anxiety attacks when I remember the time before I was diagnosed with OCD, when I would touch money and eat without washing my hands.

      HOWEVER, my fear is somewhat rare as my fear is not a fear of contracting an illness or dying (although of course that is something I fear, as would most people). My fear of germs revolves around me being unable to get the thought of the germs or where they may have come from out of my mind, until I wash.

    • EpicFarms profile image

      EpicFarms 5 years ago

      Thank you for sharing this information; very enlightening. Must be awfully hard to deal with on a day-to-day basis for all of you.

    • succesful-dylan profile image

      succesful-dylan 5 years ago

      Your husband sounds like a good man. Great job on the purple star. You totally deserved it!

    • Coreena Jolene profile image

      Coreena Jolene 5 years ago

      Thank you for sharing and letting a tiny view of your life visible. Your husband is a gem. I hope some day your bad days are few and your good days are many.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I'm a doctor with a psychiatric background and I have never heard of Mysophobia. Thank you for enlightening me:) I'm sure your lens will help many people.

    • profile image

      AlleyCatLane 5 years ago

      How wonderful you have such a loving, supportive husband. This condition can be so debilitating. Congratulations on going on the Anderson Cooper Show also to discuss this condition. Bless you, and thanks for sharing and making others aware.

    • ghaelendlareh profile image

      ghaelendlareh 5 years ago

      I had no idea this was what you were having to deal with. I am so happy you have an understanding husband. He gets two thumbs up! Although it's a real wake-up call, this is a beautiful lens.

    • Othercatt profile image
      Author

      Othercatt 5 years ago

      @cheech1981: Actually, I agree with you. I rarely use hand sanitizer because I heard it can make the germs super strong. About the soap though, I have to disagree. I can't even share soap with someone because their germs will be on the soap.

    • LouisaDembul profile image

      LouisaDembul 5 years ago

      I am really happy that you have an understanding family. Living with any kind of phobia is difficult. It's good to tell people about it- knowledge helps everybody cope better with any kind of situation.

    • sockii profile image

      Nicole Pellegrini 5 years ago from New Jersey

      Great lens, I really appreciate your bravery in getting this story out there and on such an honest, personal level. Thanks for helping to educate others!

    • cheech1981 profile image

      cheech1981 5 years ago

      germs are good for us, to an extent. i had a whole comedy routine in my head about it, and then i watched george carlin and realized he beat me to it haha. :) but seriously people stop buying gallons of hand sanitizer...your kids need to build up immunity! the most ridiculous thing i've seen so far is the hands-free soap dispenser...that is so silly...you are washing your hands AFTER you touch the dispenser anyway!

    • NoobWriter LM profile image

      NoobWriter LM 5 years ago

      Now I know that I also have Mysophobia. Thanks for the information.

    • ElizabethSheppard profile image

      Elizabeth Sheppard 5 years ago from Bowling Green, Kentucky

      I didn't know much at all about this condition. Thank you for helping me understand it better, and sharing this condition with us. All of us have things we could put on a lens like this. It is good to know you here on Squidoo.

    • jlshernandez profile image

      jlshernandez 5 years ago

      Thank you for opening our eyes to this condition or state of mind.

    • nuestraherencia profile image

      nuestraherencia 5 years ago

      I had not heard of this before. Where I live our neighbors have potlucks all the time and I am constantly harassed for not wanting to eat. Sometimes I eat, just so that people will leave me alone, but although not to your level, most of the time I think of people not washing their hands, dirty pots and pans, possible cockroaches in their kitchens, etc...so I eat as fast as I can without thinking too much.

      Last year I was very ill from MRSA I caught where I live...since then I make everyone in my home shower with Hibiclens when they go to certain people's homes or are out and about our community, me included. When some people leave my house, I wipe down chairs with alcohol...sigh But I still do believe it is a healthy fear, as I have gotten sick from food poisoning more times here than ever before and the staph issue is a non-issue to most except me.

      Good luck. I am glad your husband is understanding. That makes a world of difference.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Interesting lens - I hadn't really heard of this condition before.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Great lens! Thanks for sharing this with everyone. I was barely aware of this disease and certainly didn't know any of the details about it.

    • FanfrelucheHubs profile image

      Nathalie Roy 5 years ago from France (Canadian expat)

      First, let me say I am glad I don't suffer from Mysophobia. I never thought it could be so limitating, to the point where you even have to get your own fridge. You have a supportive husband, that must be a real help.

    • Wendy Leanne profile image

      Wendy Leanne 5 years ago from Texas

      As I said in SquidU, I am a bit of a germ a phobe and really appreciate this lens. I have a real thing with food. I don't even like my husband to take a bite off my plate or share my drink. If my kids drink from my glass, I'm done with it and have to get a new one. My husband is OCD and has rituals he has to do over and over, so I guess to a certain extent we really "get" each other.

    • elizajane202 lm profile image

      elizajane202 lm 5 years ago

      What a great and informative page. I was curious how you respond if your husband does get sick? Can he or can he not take you out on dates? (ie, movies, out to eat, etc)

    • Gayle Mclaughlin profile image

      Gayle 5 years ago from McLaughlin

      Yes! You gave all of us a glimpse into your world! Information is power and by informing people of this condition and putting a beautiful face with it! Thanks so much for this wonderful article!

    • profile image

      grannysage 5 years ago

      I love your husband. He is the real thing. I admire your courage to speak out on this little understood disorder. And now you'll be able to help even more people with the contacts you'll make from this lens.

    • LisaDH profile image

      LisaDH 5 years ago

      Kudos to you for having the courage to share your story. I hope it will help others. Is there any treatment that is effective for Mysophobia?

    • Redneck Lady Luck profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 6 years ago from Canada

      What an amazing story. Thank you so much for sharing. I believe this is also what Howard Hues suffered from near the end too...(sorry I cannot spell worth beans).

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      I think you are pretty darn special just the way you are! You are an overcomer and not only have you found ways to live wonderfully with Mysophobia and BPD, here you are sharing so personally to help others understand. I can certainly understand how this came on while living with you former mother in law, whew! I love John's attitude, "I'll just get more later", just too cool!

    • nebby profile image

      nebby 6 years ago from USA

      I never even think about germs. I figure that the more we are surrounded by them the less apt we are to be affected when a super germ comes by --good excuse to take a few days off from cleaning the house.

    • Othercatt profile image
      Author

      Othercatt 6 years ago

      @KokoTravel: A lot of my family members are nurses. I thought briefly about being one but I knew I would never be able to handle it.

    • KokoTravel profile image

      KokoTravel 6 years ago

      Nice job here... as a nurse I might be in trouble if I develop Mysophobia... but it would also seem very normal for a nurse to develop this given what we work with on a daily basis.

      Thanks for this lens.

    • GonnaFly profile image

      Jeanette 6 years ago from Australia

      My word. What an eye opener. Thanks for sharing. Your husband sounds like an amazing man.

    • hotbrain profile image

      hotbrain 6 years ago from Tacoma, WA

      A very good lens! Angel blessed :)

    • profile image

      termit_bronx 6 years ago

      I live healthy. Eat a lot of vegetables and drink a lot of green smothies, so I hope germs can't survive in my body :)

    • Othercatt profile image
      Author

      Othercatt 6 years ago

      @nukemdomis lm: Thankfully, I'm not that bad. I hope I never am.

    • nukemdomis lm profile image

      nukemdomis lm 6 years ago

      I have seen people wearing dust masks in public places because of the fear of germs.

    • Rachel Field profile image

      Rachel Field 6 years ago

      It sounds like a sane reaction to the insane world you had at your first husband's house.

      Great lens and important topic.

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