What Is Contamination OCD & How Is It Treated?

Reviewed by Melinda (Santa) Gladden, LCSW

Published 06/21/2022

When people think of OCD, what typically comes to their mind is a subtype known as contamination OCD. In this article, you will learn about this form of OCD and why it is so well known, and what can help people with it.

What Is Contamination OCD?

In the media and the public’s minds, OCD is often believed to be a condition characterized by being very clean, tidy, and organized; however, it goes much further than that.

In general, OCD is a condition that is characterized by two components - obsessions and compulsions.

People can have intrusive thoughts regarding just about anything, like violence, relationships, sexuality, religion, and of course, their health.

When people develop obsessions about their health, such as a fear of getting dirty or catching germs and sickness, they might have something known as contamination OCD, which is just one of many types of OCD people, can struggle with.

When people have obsessive fears regarding contamination, they will use compulsions to relieve their anxiety and feel satisfied and comfortable, leading to well-known actions, such as repetitive and excessive handwashing or avoiding touching objects, or making contact with people public.

It is normal to have some health concerns and take precautions, like washing hands after using the restroom. Still, sometimes, the intrusive thoughts can make people with OCD think irrationally and respond in a way that can be deemed extravagant and needless, through compulsions.

As you continue to read, you will learn more about some of the common fears and obsessions related to contamination OCD and the compulsions often seen with this type of OCD.

What Are Some OCD Contamination Fears& Obsessions?

While germs, bacteria, viruses, and dirt are some of the most common concerns for those with a fear of contamination, it is not limited to it. Below you will learn about some additional examples of fears that can be classified as this form of OCD.

  • Exposure to toxic materials, such as radioactivity, heavy metals, or asbestos and consequently developing cancer
  • Fear of bodily fluids and coming in contact with them and contracting HIV/AIDS or other sexually-transmitted infections.
  • Being accidentally or deliberately poisoned by chemicals, including household items
  • Consuming spoiled food and getting food poisoning
  • Accidentally being cut by broken glass and getting infected

Of course, contamination OCD is not just limited to these; people with contamination OCD can also be concerned for their loved ones, and their fears can be extended to them.

For example, they might worry that someone they care about will get sick because they do not take the same precautions.

These precautions are compulsions, though, and they have a significant role in how this disorder functions. The next section will cover what kind of compulsions people can depend on to find relief for their distressing obsessions.

What Are Some Contamination OCD Compulsions?

Compulsions can be described as repetitive and excessive actions and behaviors that people feel driven and compelled to perform to reduce anxiety and try to neutralize their obsessive thoughts and prevent something bad from happening.

Individuals with OCD contamination thoughts can utilize many compulsions to try to control their thoughts, feelings, and emotions, and here are some of the most common examples of them: [1]

  • Excessive and aggressive handwashing and bathing
  • Frequently changing their clothes
  • Meticulously cleaning and disinfecting and sterilizing the house, and not letting others enter certain areas
  • Wearing protective equipment to prevent possible exposure to contaminants
  • Organizing and separating things that may or may not be contaminated
  • Discarding things that are perceived to be contaminated and can't be cleaned
  • Developing rituals, such as counting, praying to try to prevent magical contamination (i.e., the "wrong" number can cause terminal illness)
  • Constantly researching various diseases and conditions
  • Avoiding people or objects that may be sick or contaminated
  • Questioning others to determine if they are contaminated or not
  • Asking for reassurance on whether or not something is safe
  • Frequent doctor visits for health testing

Although some of these are unique to contamination OCD, the core symptoms are very similar across all forms of OCD. Most compulsions can be simplified as checking, avoidance, reassurance-seeking behaviors, and physical and mental rituals.

However, these compulsions can provide a sense of relief to those with OCD; it is always temporary. The compulsions are what cause the disorder to be persistent and seem impossible to beat.

Contamination OCD can have many negative consequences like skin damage from excessive washing and using harsh chemicals, affect a person's social relationships, and limiting their ability to function and live life with the freedom they desire.

All types of OCD are disabling, but fortunately, they are also very treatable, and people can overcome it. In addition, in the next section, you will learn how it is treated.

Treating Contamination OCD

OCD, in general, is typically treated with a combination of psychotherapy and medication, the former being more important because it helps you learn how to cope with the obsessive thoughts and not respond to them using compulsions.

When people depend on compulsion, it reinforces the obsessions. It can make them more powerful over time, and therefore, the primary method of beating OCD is learning how to not respond to their obsessions.

The main way of doing this is through a specific type of cognitive-behavioral therapy known as exposure and response prevention (ERP).

As you have probably guessed, exposure will require individuals with OCD to face their fears, and in this case, it is contamination. This will sound terrifying, but it is safe, and it will be a gradual process done with the guidance of a mental health professional who is experienced in helping people with OCD.

In ERP, patients will start with easier assignments and will be instructed not to respond to them with compulsions like handwashing or wiping down surfaces repeatedly

Here is an example:

James has a fear of coming into contact with germs and getting sick, and therefore, is afraid of and avoids touching objects that others have used, such as doorknobs, toilets, countertops, shopping carts, etc.

One day, James has to use a public restroom when out shopping, which causes his mind to be flooded with intrusive thoughts. He will diligently try to avoid touching the handles on any of the objects and make sure there are no germs and other possible contaminants. He will keep washing his hands.

James knows that he has washed his hands multiple times. Still, he struggles with the uncertainty on whether it was enough and will continue to do so until he feels satisfied and certain that he is rid of any potential contaminants, which leaves his skin very irritated.

In this scenario, the issue is not James' handwashing specifically, and ERP will not make him quit washing his hands; rather, it is the repetitiveness and excessiveness that makes it problematic and his inability to cope with uncertainty and the possibility of getting sick.

With ERP, patients will be instructed to refrain from washing their hands for some time gradually. By doing this, the urges and anxiety will eventually diminish with repeated sessions. Initially, the anxiety will be strong, but people can become desensitized through repeated exposure and longer intervals between their compulsions. [2]

Eventually, James will learn how to cope with the "what-ifs" that come with contamination OCD and realize that longer and aggressive handwashing compulsions are unnecessary. He will be able to wash his hands just once and continue going about his day, knowing that it is sufficient and that he probably will not get sick.

This makes the obsessions weaker, and for many people, they can completely go away. However, it can always return at some point, which is why OCD needs to be managed, but with the skills and strategies learned, it gets easier to do.

Medication may be prescribed to help people with symptoms of OCD. While it is not a long-term solution, it can make exposure and response prevention much more approachable and increase a person's chances of success.

ERP is not easy, and it can take a few months to see results, but it is rewarding, and it can completely change a person's life by altering how they think, feel, and behave towards negative and unhelpful thoughts, images, and ideas.

Do You Have Contamination OCD?

Contamination OCD is one of the most common subtypes of obsessive-compulsive disorder. If you are noticing any of the signs and symptoms discussed here, you are encouraged to seek treatment immediately.

You can also take this free OCD test and find out. Once you obtain your results, you can feel free to make an appointment with a mental health professional and discuss them and what you have been experiencing.

This will lead to a formal diagnosis, and from there, you can start getting the help you need through exposure and response prevention and possibly medication if needed.

Conclusion

If you have been struggling with contamination OCD, it does not need to control your life, and it is a very treatable condition. By getting help, you can learn how to live a happier and more fulfilling, productive life by addressing and eliminating the symptoms that are bothering you and consuming your days.

References

  1. International OCD Foundation. (2017, October 10). OCD and Contamination. Retrieved from https://iocdf.org/expert-opinions/expert-opinion-contamination/
  2. Cougle, J. R., Wolitzky-Taylor, K. B., Lee, H., &Telch, M. J. (2007). Mechanisms of change in ERP treatment of compulsive hand washing: Does primary threat make a difference? Behaviour Research and Therapy, 45(7), 1449-1459. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2006.12.001

NOTES:        No changes needed.

  • Does not go against what is clinically accepted.
  • Does not encourage mindsets or practices that may be harmful to the reader.
  • Is factual and up-to-date.