M is for Mysophobia


Quick. Name three mysophobic celebrities. Oh, well, then name one television character who is a severe mysophobe. Still no? Hmm. Maybe, we need to use some other synonyms. Bacillophobia? Still not ringing a bell. Let’s talk about mysophobia.

Mysophobia has been classed as a separate disorder associated with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) since 1879. Unlike its broad counterpart, mysophobia is a very focused fear. What riddles mysophobes with anxiety and petrifies them? In a word, dirt.

Dust, debris, earth…they cause pathological panic about contamination and germs from coming in contact with dirt.

Monk and More

The popular television program, starring Tony Shaloub, features a psychologically dysfunctional police detective who suffers from, among other disorders, mysophobia. Monk gave the disorder and OCD a comedic twist, but gave a sliver of view into the life of a mysophobe.

Many celebrities have or have had mysophobia:

  • Michael Jackson
  • Joan Crawford
  • Howie Mandel
  • Will Ferrell
  • Kerry King
  • Woody Allen
  • Cameron Diaz
  • Howard Hughes
  • Nikola Tesla

Some on this list overcame the phobia, while others suffered until their deaths.

Even in their own homes.

More than just a compulsive need to wash hands, people with more severe cases of mysophobia will only use disposable dishes or utensils, throw away clothes after wearing them, refuse to visit hospitals, resist shaking hands, shower immediately after being in public, refrain from touching their own belongings after someone else, refuse to touch animals and clean surfaces they believe to be contaminated with dirt.

They will avoid choosing food from a platter shared with others, wear disposable latex or food service gloves to cook in their own homes, ask for a disposable cup in a restaurant rather than a glass, not share bottled beverages even in separate glasses and avoid raw meats.


What makes a person fear dirt? Mysophobes have an overestimated or irrational perception of the likelihood they will contract an illness as a result of exposure to germs they believe are present on surfaces and in the air. Some causes include childhood exposure to someone who contracted a germ-bourne illness or seeing a motion picture about successful germ warfare.

What a mysophobe envisions on every hand.

Patients believe mere exposure to any pathogen will result in their contracting the disease. They also believe the pathogens are far more prevalent than is true. Even scientific evidence pathogens are not carried in dirt fails to deter the fear.

Mysophobia is commonly associated with the OCD behavior of compulsively washing hands. Germophobes will wash their hands after encounters with surfaces or objects which other people have touched because they believe pathogens are present on the objects, and those germs have transferred to their hands.


Different everyday happenings and products perpetuate the fear:

  • Broadcasts about outbreaks
  • Abundance of personal sanitary implements
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Germ-killing sprays
  • Disposable germ-killing wipes

Germaphobes, a colloquial name for mysophobes, always consider themselves in high risk groups even in cases where they are not on the same continent with the outbreak. They believe any exposure at all is dangerous or threatening.

They wear masks to keep from inhaling ambient germs.

They feel they need all sanitary barriers, like latex gloves and toilet covers, to protect them. Mysophobes also think they will be the exception to the barrier’s statistics and will frequently use disinfecting wipes or sprays on surfaces and cover their mouths and noses with their hands or arms.

They believe they need excessive amounts of germ-killers to reduce the chances of contraction. Common pathogens, like streptococcus, the bacteria which causes strep throat, mutate to become immune to these killers over time.

Unfortunately, mysophobes still do not feel protected despite their efforts. They will avoid places they believe ambient germs are available, such as sporting events with large numbers of people who could breathe, cough or sneeze on them.


Mysophobia has many physical and psychological symptoms. Germaphobes feel anxiety about situations where they perceive the threat from dirt. Increased heart rate, blood pressure, agitation and sweating are all anxiety symptoms. The fear can make them feel nauseated and/or can trigger the flight response.

The physical symptoms include panic attacks.

When patients think about the situations where they believe exposure to dirt and germs are imminent, they can become so focused on the potential outcome they can think of nothing else. The psychological basis of this obsessive thinking is mysophobes incorrectly read danger on every surface, like shopping cart handles and friend’s telephones.

More severe cases combine the physical and psychological symptoms into panic attacks. Patients rarely see the danger in the panic attack as a real threat to their health.


Cognitive behavior therapy is the most common and effective treatment for mysophobia. Germophobes are taught (cognitive) to resist the miscommunication and manifestations (behavior) by facing their fear (emotion) gradually.

Cognitive Behavior Therapy

Cognitive Behavior Therapy

For many mysophobes, the first step is shaking hands with the practitioner. The patient can watch the psychotherapist wash hands before shaking, but will not be allowed to wash his own hands for three to five minutes afterward. This reinforces the theory not every contact will result in illness.

Contacts change to touching dirt or garbage with a similar waiting period to the handshaking. Gradually, the periods between contact and cleansing behaviors is increased.

With cognitive behavior therapy, mysophobia is manageable without medication in most instances.


Are you someone or do you know anyone who has mysophobia? What other types of behavior do mysophobes exhibit? Do you know of another celebrity with mysophobia?

(c) Ann Marie Dwyer 2012
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On a personal note, thank you for all the lovely comments whilst I was driving. After I recover from the coma-like sleep derived of 12 hours of driving and have a bit of room service, I shall answer everyone…Regardless of the time you read this, Bonne nuit!


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  1. As I frantically play catch up, this one hits me between the eyes.

    I am not this, but I despise dirt and filth yet am surrounded by it is in my office daily (try living with a cockatoo). I resolved to learn to not rip my hair from my head when he spit seed at me, it took me years. Now he spits I call him a convict he laughs, we are happy.

    The rest of the house? It still makes me crazed if it is not the way I like it. Flying makes me crazed and I carry wipes with me for the restrooms, same with any public restroom (hate them, women are so nasty).

    I don’t think I am obsessive about it, just observant.

    Great job as always.
    valentinelogar recently posted..ABC AwardMy Profile

    • Red

       /  April 17, 2012

      I am so with you on the women are vile, loathsome creatures. I put a ton of miles on everything, so I have come to appreciate the rolling box of wipes and the purse pack.

  2. There have been a few recent studies that said shopping carts and gas-station filling nozzle handles are quite bad, with e-coli and other things on them. It’s hard to know how much of a threat things really are, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if some of the common colds and flues are transmitted from everyday sources. Of course, I’m typing this from my bubble, so I’m safe.
    Binky recently posted..Learning to DoMy Profile

    • Red

       /  April 17, 2012

      Lots of them are. The worst place is the doctor’s office door handle on the outside. Telephones and every other surface pick all of them up. E-Coli is nasty…had that last summer. Fortunately, I ate enough dirt as a child I survived.

  3. The fact is, exposure to dirt and bacteria is a good thing within limits, it encourages the development of antibodies and strengthens the immune system. That doesn’t mean hygiene is bad, but being ‘too clean’ may be one of the reasons there is so much illness and so many allergies today.
    Raymond Alexander Kukkee recently posted..M is for MethodMy Profile

    • Red

       /  April 17, 2012

      Thinking alike…I just commented to this effect to Binky. Controlled exposure is key to antibody development. The over cleanliness and the massive overkill on the antibacterial everything is why the microbes are resistant and we are not. Clean has its place, but everyone needs a little dirt eventually.

  4. Raymond is absolutely right. The attempt to shield children from every germ or bit of good, clean dirt in the world isn’t necessarily helpful.

    As a child I went barefoot, played in mud puddles, drank from streams, ate candy off the floor and shared all those lovely childhood diseases with my classmates – measles, mumps, chicken pox. We “got the sniffles”, and went right on about life.

    I’ve been trying to remember my illnesses in the past 20 years: one case of bronchitis, two flu episodes. That’s it. Of course, I have the great advantage of doing manual labor outdoors, which cuts down on exposure. By preference I avoid shopping malls, movies and such, so that helps, too. But I don’t worry at all about shopping carts and such – I don’t even think about “taking precautions”.

    I have known one true mysophobe in my life – a good friend, actually. We called him “old weird Harold”. Even he laughed about it. When he’d go into the men’s restroom at our marina clubhouse, he’d have to wait until someone opened the door for him. He refused to touch the handle on the door. And he was up there a lot – he also refused to use the head on his boat until they were beyond the three mile limit.

    They left over ten years ago to circumnavigate. They did it once, and liked it so much they started over. Now that I think about it, sailing’s a good life for a mysophobe. A self-contained world, and total control. What could be better?
    shoreacres recently posted..A Little Nash RambleMy Profile

    • Red

       /  April 17, 2012

      I have such a fit with parents who run to the MD or ER every stinking sneeze. The over medication of our children is alarming. I have one child who is antibiotic resistant because I did not resist soon enough with one doctor. My children stick it out until we get to fever pitch. They are uber healthy as a result.

      I think Harold found an excellent solution!

  5. ‘Fraid I’ve become OCD about hand washing because I kept getting diarrhoea, but apart from that I’m fine – I even kissed Sarah when she was ill and spent ten glorious days sick with a bad fever…

    Love and hugs!

    prenin recently posted..Saturday – my second lottery win in a week!My Profile

  6. Howie Mandel was the only one I knew about on the list!

    Shannon at The Warrior Muse, co-host of the 2012 #atozchallenge! Twitter: @AprilA2Z

    • Red

       /  April 17, 2012

      Good to see you, Shannon! There were loads I left off for brevity. These are some of the most public about it.

  7. Michael Jackson and definitely Howard Hughes, what do you think of my suggestion that Hitler as well in a politically orientated way ?
    Aussie Emu
    aussieian2011 recently posted..The Pearl Within My OysterMy Profile

    • Red

       /  April 17, 2012

      Not just politically. He was a mysophobe as well. While his was less documented than others, he and Eva were both to a lesser degree than those on the list.

  8. I can’t say I suffer from the disorder, but I do have a lot of issues with stuff like animals (it doesn’t wash off) people reaching over my food or talking near my food . . . But I allow my 2yo granddaughter (and ONLY her) to lick my tongue (because she’s persistent and cute) so…. make of that what you will.
    Angela recently posted..Just do something!My Profile

    • Red

       /  April 17, 2012

      I am OCD, but I am not a cleaner. My big hangup is vacuuming. It must be done. Other than that, as long as there is no sand in the bathtub, I am good.

  9. I can’t say that I do. In fact, I can’t think of anyone I know with a phobia of any kind, except there was a girl……..

    She would clean her floors with bleach 2x a day and vacuum 5x. I just can’t relate.
    lorrelee1970 recently posted..More poetry recycled for your use…..My Profile

    • Red

       /  April 18, 2012

      That sounds like more classic OCD than mysophobia…even if it has mysophobe qualities. I have known a few. They do not even want food touching on their plates.

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