When a Germaphobe Goes to College

Health Writer

Heading to college is an exciting adventure -- except when you have mysophobia, the fear of germs. Then, a college campus can become a scary place.

  • John worried about germs. He shared a dorm room with two roommates and they all shared one bathroom. John spent each night cleaning the bathroom with bleach to wipe away germs after his roommates used the bathroom. Some nights he would spend hours cleaning the bathroom, so much that it began to interfere with his studies.

  • Julia found it difficult to touch surfaces that were used by other people. At first it wasn’t so bad but as the semester progressed, her fears grew. She found it repulsive to touch a desktop and carried disinfectant wipes with her to wipe down desks or tables in the cafeteria before she sat down. She carried a water bottle with her because she couldn’t drink from a public water fountain and rushed back to her dorm in between classes to use the bathroom in her private dorm room.

  • _Jose washed his hands hundreds of times each day_and in between washing he used hand sanitizers. Every time he touched anything -- desks, water fountains, chairs, tables -- he washed his hands. After a few weeks, his hands were dry and cracked from constant washing.

The fear of germs, also called germaphobia, is an irrational fear of becoming contaminated. Germaphobes often see the world as a dirty place. They feel that no matter how much they wash themselves or objects, they can’t get rid of all the germs. They worry constantly about getting sick and the first sign of an illness, even a single cough, can send them into a cleaning frenzy.

Most commonly germophobes wash their hands excessively, won’t use public bathrooms and won’t share personal items (combs, brushes, food, cups). They might avoid being in public places where they might come in physical contact with others. Some germaphobes might have further restrictions in their daily life including not touching doorknobs, not using public transportation, or refusing to shake hands. Many will carry hand sanitizers with them and use them liberally throughout the day.

For college students, germaphobia can interfere with daily life. It can range from mild (using a hand sanitizer throughout the day) to severe (avoiding going to class, spending evenings sanitizing belongings instead of studying, etc.). It can interfere with social relationships or even prevent someone from interacting with others.

Luckily, there is help available. If you believe that you or someone you know is a germophobe, the collegounseling center or health center is the best place to start.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been found to be effective in treating mysophobia and obsessive compulsive disorder. Exposure and desensitization allow someone to gradually overcome their fear. For example, a person afraid to touch a water fountain might first touch it with one finger, refraining from washing their hands for a few minutes. Slowly the counselor would increase the exposure (more than one finger, then the whole hand) while also slowly increasing the time between touching it and washing hands.

In addition to exposure therapy, CBT helps to change attitudes and thought processes, challenging the belief that “I will become deathly ill if I touch the water fountain” to a more balanced thought, such as, “Many people touch the water fountain each day without getting sick,” or “Germs are sometimes helpful.” Another aspect of CBT is to incorporate relaxation strategies to lower levels of anxiety.

Some people find a combination of CBT and medication is helpful, especially in the early stages of CBT. However, many people use CBT alone and find they begin to feel better anywhere from eight to 12 weeks after starting the therapy.

For more information on anxiety in college:

Anxiety When Heading Off to College

Anxiety When Sending Children Off to College

Asking for Accommodations in College When You Have Anxiety

Help For College Students With Anxiety Disorders

Stressed and Depressed on College Campuses

Managing Anxiety in School: Children, Teens and College Students


OCD and Contamination: IOCDF.org

Overcoming OCD: A Guide for College Students: OCD Chicago

Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of Idiot's Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot's Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love and Essential Guide to Asperger's Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.