Washing your hands is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of lots of illness including colds, flu, food-borne illnesses, and other infectious diseases. However, there are some people who are so worried about germs that they take exacting care in public places to avoid touching surfaces that may be germ-infested and frequently use hand sanitizers and antibacterial soaps in an effort to minimize risk. For most, these precautions put their concerns to rest and are part of their daily routine. For some, however, concern about cleanliness and germs is an obsession and leads to compulsive, often ritualized behavior.

Obsessive fear of germs or dirt and the compulsion to wash the hands over and over is one of the most common manifestations of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). For people who suffer from OCD, hand washing goes well beyond a concern with cleanliness. It is extreme behavior whose real purpose is to lessen intense feelings of fear and anxiety. The distinction between concern about germs and obsessive-compulsive disorder is based on the degree to which the concern affects and disrupts – even dominates – one's life.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Excessive Hand Washing

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is an anxiety disorder characterized by unmanageable fears and thoughts that compel repetitive, ritualized behaviors that are performed in an attempt to drive out the obsessive thoughts. OCD sufferers generally believe that their obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors are irrational but feel helpless to resist them. Those with hand-washing compulsions are obsessed with fear of contamination and often wash their hands repeatedly until they are chapped, raw and sometimes even bleeding. They may also ritualize the process, for example, by washing each finger individually and in a specific order. An interruption to the ritual might compel starting over—and over—from the beginning.

People with above-average concern about germs and dirt will wash their hands very thoroughly and may avoid touching the faucet when turning off the water so as not to re-contaminate their hands. They may also make liberal use of hand sanitizers between washes. They will go about their day, however, without undue distress about cleanliness. For those with OCD, on the other hand, a single washing is never enough. Even after multiple washings, the anxiety associated with fear of contamination will continue to interrupt their thoughts to the point of disrupting their lives—and washing their hands does little to relieve the anxiety.

A clear-cut cause of obsessive-compulsive disorder has not been pinpointed. It is generally thought that there are a number of factors involved, ranging from biological, to psychological and environmental. While it is known that there are changes in the brains of people with OCD, there is no scan or test that can diagnose it definitively. Diagnosis is based on a comprehensive interview with a mental health professional. Psychotherapy, with or without medication, is often an effective treatment for OCD, particularly cognitive behavioral therapy, a short-term, structured approach that focuses on learning ways of dealing with obsessive thoughts without resorting to compulsive behaviors.

Help for Excessive Hand Washing

Embarrassment often causes people to suffer with obsessive-compulsive disorder for years before seeking help and to try to keep their behavior hidden even from those close to them. We emphasize that there is a clear distinction between concern with cleanliness and OCD and suggest that anyone suspecting the disorder ask himself or herself these questions:

  • After washing your hands, are you still worried that you might have missed a spot or not washed correctly? Even after repeated washing are you still fearful or anxious that your hands aren't clean enough?
  • Do you have a highly structured routine for washing your hands? Do you wash according to a particular sequence or count? Do you frequently start over for fear of having gotten it wrong?
  • Do you go to extremes and avoid places or situations that you fear might expose you to germs or dirt? For example, do you avoid shaking hands or touching surfaces in public places?
  • Are your hands often red, raw, and chapped?
  • Does your anxiety about contamination and your efforts to alleviate it interfere with your relationships and daily activities?

Answering 'yes' to several of these questions might indicate obsessive-compulsive disorder and warrant a consultation with an experienced psychologist. The disorder is readily treatable. No one needs to live with the anxiety and depression caused by obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors.

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