QUESTION: My husband is a real germ-o-phobe. He’s constantly wiping everything down with those anti-bacterial wipes and cleaning his hands with them. He won’t shake people’s hands and he won’t touch anything at the gym because he’s afraid of getting sick. I’m the opposite. I think that a few germs are good and help your body learn to fight off illness. Who’s right?
DR. RASKIN: This is not a question of who is right and who is wrong. The real question here is whether your husband may have a condition that so interferes with his daily life that he may need treatment with psychotherapy or medication.
Germaphobia is a popular name for people who become obsessed with germs and dirt and feel compelled to act out rituals of washing and cleaning. The technical term is mysophobia (a pathological fear of contamination and germs).
This can be a variant of obsessive-compulsive disorder and can often cause a lot of distress and anxiety for those who suffer from this condition. It can also drive a spouse crazy if they don’t understand the nature of the illness.
Signs that an obsession with contamination is more than just an eccentricity include acting out the cleaning rituals as a way to relieve anxiety, engaging in cleaning at least an hour a day and an awareness that the obsession with germs is foolish but feeling compelled to wash and clean.
The treatment for this condition can include cognitive therapy and/or medications that alter chemicals in the brain such as serotonin and norepinephrine.
Yes, regular hand washing is an excellent way to help prevent the spread of disease and should be done before eating, after using the restroom or after petting your dog.
In addition, washing before and after preparing food, after coughing or sneezing or if someone at home is ill can all be good for preventing illness.
As a physician, I also wash before and after seeing each patient in my office. But it should be noted that too much washing can lead to dry and cracked skin, allowing germs an easier time to get into the body.
As to your point that exposure to some germs can help build immunity, there may be some truth to that. It is now believed that kids with very little exposure to dirt, animals or other environmental pathogens may be more prone to developing allergies later in life as their body sees these substances as “foreign invaders” and develops a “hyper” response to them including rashes and wheezing.
For those germaphobes out there, I do have some good news. Public toilet seats are totally safe to sit on. You can’t get infections just from your skin coming into contact with them.
In fact, bacteria and viruses die the second they lose contact with the body and land on the surface of the toilet seat.
Furthermore, your husband can greet people with a fist bump if he doesn’t want to shake their hand. The fist bump transfers 20 times less bacteria than the average handshake.
The bottom line here is that clean is good, too clean may be a sign of needing help.
Palisadian Damon Raskin, M.D., is a board-certified internist who offers preventative medicine, concierge services and addiction medicine to patients in and around the Palisades. Contact: 310-459-4333. To submit your medical questions, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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