​​What is contamination OCD?

Contamination OCD is one of the most well-known types of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, accounting for approximately 1/4 of all OCD cases. This type of OCD can lead a person to experience exaggerated fears of contamination from contact with people or everyday items. This causes the development of various compulsive behaviors to cope with anxiety such as repeatedly washing his/her hands or showering, overly using hand sanitizer or anti-bacterial cleaning products in an effort to eradicate potential contaminants. In addition, the person may avoid contact with everyday objects such as sinks, toilets, doorknobs, money, or virtually anything that can be construed as being contaminated. The contamination worry is usually based on an irrational fear of getting a disease or illness leading to death of him/herself and/or loved ones, or a general sense that something bad will happen.

A person with contamination fears may get to the point where their OCD is so severe that they believe the contamination has spread and virtually everything except a small safe area is contaminated. That safe area can get smaller and smaller over time until they are confined to one room of the house or even the shower. A person with Contamination OCD often feels a sense of responsibility to protect others from the contaminants. This can cause tension or stress for the loved ones of OCD. The OCD sufferer may insist that friends and loved ones avoid contaminants for fear of them being contaminated or spreading the germs to their safe zones. The OCD sufferer will often insist that family members decontaminate the home (i.e. clean the home according to their extreme OCD rituals) and change shoes and clothes before entering the home. They may also limit who can enter the home due to fear of being contaminated by what other people bring in.

Common obsessions in Contamination OCD

The obsessions a person experiences with Contamination OCD can vary widely and are not the same for everyone. Some obsessions include:

  • An extreme fear of becoming “contaminated” by touching certain types of substances or certain items in particular places

  • Obsessive fears about sticky residues, grease, or dirt on body or clothing

  • Obsessive fears about HIV, blood, cancer, bodily fluids, feces, or urine

  • Extreme fear of being coughed or sneezed on

  • A fear of wearing clothes that have come in contact with any contaminants

  • Fears of spreading contaminants around house, car, personal belongings or bedroom

Common compulsions in Contamination OCD

Compulsive behaviors can vary significantly from person to person. Some common compulsions include:

  • Repeatedly washing and cleaning oneself (washing hands, disinfecting, showering, or bathing)
  • Excessive and ritualized bathing that may consume large portions of one’s time
  • Avoiding public spaces
  • Avoiding the touch of other people
  • Changing clothes frequently or discarding clothes or other items that have become “contaminated”
  • Avoiding certain rooms in the home which are thought to be "contaminated"
  • Seeking reassurance that they have not been “contaminated”

Mental Contamination

For some, feelings of discomfort and dirtiness can also be triggered by association with a "contaminated" person who has betrayed or harmed the sufferer in some way, or even by their own thoughts, images or memories. This ‘mental contamination’ leads to an internal sense of dirtiness. There is also a whole category of fears of contamination of a stranger and more magical type, which could include:

  • thoughts
  • words
  • names (of illnesses, disabilities, people who are ill, or disabled, or who have died)
  • places where bad things have happened
  • mental images
  • overweight or unattractive people
  • colors
  • bad luck

Obviously, logic has little to do with these fears. The belief here is that these names, images, concepts, or the characteristics of certain people can be magically transferred, simply by thinking about them or by coming into casual contact with them. They can be every bit as disabling as the items on the previous list. 
For magical types of contamination, common compulsions include decontamination rituals designed to remove or cancel out the problem, thought, name, image, or concept; saying special words or prayers, thinking opposing or good thoughts to cancel out bad thoughts, and doing actions in reverse.

Treatment for Contamination OCD

​People suffering from Contamination OCD are encouraged to seek treatment from a mental health treatment provider that specializes in the treatment of OCD.  OCD specialists are equipped and prepared to treat a wide array of OCD subtypes, including Contamination OCD. Like all types of OCD, Contamination OCD can be treated with a combination of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Exposure and Response Prevention.  Contact Lauren Pellizzi to start treatment. 

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