Help me become a reasonable germophobe
September 23, 2010 7:56 AM   Subscribe

I’ve recently, over the course of the last year, gone from being a pretty average person to being a raging germophobe, and I am exhausted. Instead of remaining on constant, high-alert paranoia, I would like to develop a set of rules that I can follow and rest assured that I’m doing what is reasonably possible to prevent germ-related catastrophe. I’m interested in knowing the chances of xyz germ contamination happening, and how to go about reasonable prevention that won’t disrupt normal routines or inconvenience others. What are your cleaning rituals, when do you take calculated risks, and when do you decide that worrying isn’t worth it?

Background (this is long so I apologize in advance):

Pink eye. I started getting paranoid last summer, when my office had a pink eye scare. I got pink eye from a shared keyboard with a pink-eyed coworker, passed it to my boyfriend, and worried incessantly about passing it to roommates or friends. Resulting behavior – never, ever touch my eyes, never use public keyboards.

At the end of the summer, I moved to Taipei, Taiwan. Here, there are different standards of hygiene and sanitation, as well as a whole new host of pests, bugs and climate-related hassles. I think this is where things started getting serious for me.

Fleas. Six months ago, I got fleas in my rented room. We got rid of them, but I actually still have bagged clothes that I haven’t touched since the event, because I am afraid to open the bags and potentially let fleas out. (That’s a side question – how can I go about safely cleaning these clothes?) Resulting behavior – total paranoia, because we never could figure out where the fleas came from. I now avoid all dogs, and for a long time would not go to the park.

Mold. After an extremely cold and damp winter, my drafty room developed a mold problem. The ceiling molded, and the entire bottom plywood surface of my desk also grew a forest of mold. The problem was severe enough that we noticed headaches and breathing difficulty while in the room. We cleaned the ceiling several times and were horrified when we noticed the bottom of the desk; we cleaned it and painted it, and haven’t had a problem since. Resulting behavior – I’ve been aggressive about checking the closet and other spaces for mold, and far less trusting of my ability to keep my apartment clean.

Cockroaches. Cockroaches are a fact of life here. Most apartments – and my university – have a cockroach presence. I want to make sure I keep cockroaches out of my apartment. Lately, there’s been a lot of baby cockroaches crawling around at my school and work, and I’m petrified of picking up a hitchhiker and carrying it home. On a trip this summer, I opened my luggage, which was sitting zipped in our room, and a giant cockroach crawled out. Resulting behavior – try to never let my bag touch surfaces where a cockroach could crawl inside. At school I always sit with my bag in my lap. This is impossible at work, though, and I worry when I notice cockroaches while at work.

Bed bugs. This summer, my boyfriend and I traveled in the Philippines and I came away from the experience petrified of bed bugs. We spent a couple of nights at a nice hotel – a nice hotel! – and one morning when we woke up his entire back – his entire back! – had around sixty bites – oh my god! – on it. We managed to wash and dry our clothes before coming back, but I was still very worried about bringing whatever bit us back home. Resulting behavior – I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to sleep soundly in a hotel again. I think my paranoia about bugs was a downer that affected others on a group trip we took after getting back.

Run of the mill germs. Last but not least, I am also afraid of catching the common cold from others, or just having things get dirty. This is something new that I've started after getting to Taipei. I meticulously note what things (straws, utensils, hands) have touched possibly unclean surfaces, and do everything I can to keep these things compartmentalized and clean. This is sometimes impossible and I do have one friend who’s complained that I’m too uptight about hygiene. This particular friend is a teacher and is usually fighting a cold, so she coughs a lot and blows her nose without washing her hands a lot, and then tries to touch me or stroke my hair. I think this is disgusting and unsanitary, but would like to know if I’m being too picky about contact with her. I’ve noticed that my friend isn’t the only person with looser hand-washing criteria than mine – many food service workers here don’t wash their hands, or touch things like money or broom handles before handling my food with their bare hands. (I’ve heard a popular saying that if food is a little dirty, so much the better, because you’ll build up immunity for the really dirty stuff.) When I find myself on crowded public transportation, I suffer because I view most contact with others – especially other people’s bags – as possible disease or bacteria vectors. I worry constantly about using public toilets, and try not to touch anything at all. I keep track of which fingers touched the door, and I try not to use them for anything at all until I wash my hands. I work with kids and if they scratch their heads, I worry they’ve got lice.

I know this kind of incessant worrying is excessive, and I do not like this new paranoid version of myself. I don’t like eyeing potential bio-hazards and diseases everywhere I go, and trying to touch as little as possible all day long. This past weekend, I caught myself trying to not sit or touch surfaces at a party, and I decided I’ve got a problem.

Tldr; I want to know the chances (statistics would be great) of picking up diseases or pests from everyday life, and how to take reasonable preventative measures against picking these up. Stuff like, the very first thing I do when I get home is wash my hands, and then I mentally check it off and don’t worry. Or, this is the way I clean my home and arrange my possessions so that they are easy to clean and not easy for bugs to take residence, and then I don't worry. I’m interested in avoiding the germs and pests that I’ve listed above, as well as anything else anyone has advice for. (One current concern is that with winter approaching, pests like fleas will be more attracted to body heat and more likely to latch onto my bulky layers.) Once I’m doing these things, does anyone have any tips on how to just relax?
posted by pluot to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It might help your headspace to know that letting yourself get exposed to some germs and dirt keeps your immune system healthy; isolating yourself from all germ exposure makes you more vulnerable when exposure does occur.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 7:58 AM on September 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

My mom is a nurse. The best advice I got from her: Don't touch your eyes. This keeps a ton of crap out of your body. The "mucous membranes" in our eyes, nose and mouths are pretty porous I guess... So basic handwashing hygeine goes a long way. No, not 50 times a day, either.

Also, your skin is hardy. Junk can't usually get in except through cuts. So feel free to sit down on a toilet seat without sanitizing it unless you have oozing, open cuts on your ass/thighs.
posted by ShadePlant at 8:02 AM on September 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

I decided I’ve got a problem.

That doesn't really gel with this:

I want to know the chances (statistics would be great) of picking up diseases or pests from everyday life, and how to take reasonable preventative measures against picking these up.

If you have a problem, you treat the problem. The germs aren't your problem. The bugs aren't your problem. Your obsession is the problem, and you need someone to help you out from under it.
posted by hermitosis at 8:03 AM on September 23, 2010 [13 favorites]

After my first summer in Japan I felt the same way. I experienced cockroaches for the first time, and a stray cat (there are many in Japan) managed to get into our house and regularly eat our garbage. Small black ants would then troop into the house and feast on the garbage. Tiny centipedes climbed the walls. It was hot and sweaty, so I got jock itch. So I can somewhat understand your paranoia.

I think you may need to take a break from Taiwan, because some of your fears (touching other people, toilet seats) are pretty irrational.

If you can't take a break from Taiwan, I would recommend moving. Speaking as someone who has lived in the region, fleas and mold are not normal. I would say that you could probably make some adjustments (wash the dishes) to get rid of the cockroaches, but the presence of the first two pests suggests you're living in a dive.

And I'm sorry to say that being exposed to "germs" doesn't really make you stronger, at least not in the short term. I'm not sure if there are any benefits to contracting pink eye. Being exposed to germs and vermin has definitely made you more anxious, irrational, and paranoid, and this is an obvious net loss.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:12 AM on September 23, 2010

Seconding Hermitosis. I'm sorry you've had such a sucky, pestilence-laden year, and I am certain that's what's kicked off your germophobia... but it is still that - a phobia. I think it may be difficult for you to successfully "scale back" on the anxiety and uber-precautions UNLESS you confront the underlying emotional/psychological stuff (a moldy desk would throw ANYONE for a loop!). Again, I'm sorry for your Plagues of Pluot year.
posted by julthumbscrew at 8:14 AM on September 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

The germs, bugs, and getting sick aren't your problem. They're a fact of life. Aside from keeping your place reasonably clean, taking a shower daily, washing your hands at least a few times a day (don't use that anti-bacterial stuff - it will do more harm than good), I think think the best thing you can do is learn to surrender. You can't completely sanitize the world around you. It's impossible, and isn't actually good for people.

You can't rid yourself the risk of getting sick, or seeing a bug. It's normal and it happens from time to time. We all actually need some bacteria - it helps protect us in many ways, and isn't necessarily the enemy. The problem is not that bugs and germs worry you, but when it becomes something you think about all the time, before and after virtually every moment, then it's obsessive and problematic. The stress is probably a lot worse for you than a few germs and bugs. Finding a way to accept this (learning about your OCD, talking to a specialist who deals with obsessive compulsive disorders) will free you.
posted by raztaj at 8:17 AM on September 23, 2010

I have a friend who is deathly afraid of bed bugs. She might be afraid of everything else too--I don't know. She puts things in the freezer to kill the bugs. As a method of killing bugs, I don't know if this works because I never looked into it. As a method of giving her some peace of mind, it seems to be effective.
posted by oreofuchi at 8:21 AM on September 23, 2010

Anti-anxiety meds are your friends in this case, more than handwashing, not letting stuff touch the floor, or cleaning fanatically. It might not be OCD, but definitely staying as anxious as you are isn't good for anyone.
posted by pised at 8:27 AM on September 23, 2010

This isn't what you asked (mods, please delete if you think necessary), but could your germophobia be partly an expression of homesickness/ alienation after moving to Taipei? If so, recognising that and perhaps seeking help for it might be part of the solution.
posted by tavegyl at 8:34 AM on September 23, 2010

I concur with the posters who suggest the problem is likely a phobia/OCD rather than the unwanted intruders/contaminants/infectious agents themselves. Given the cycle you describe, your past and present responses and the nature of your requests for help I fear you will not find much relief in any recommended protocols for cleanliness or improved hygiene. If you find that better protocols do not manage the fear/anxiety and that your concerns regularly interfere with the quality of your day to day life your options are to: accept and live with the disruption and fear ( many people do and have otherwise relatively successful lives ) or seek professional treatment which is very likely to be helpful. The one thing that is a clear warning bell, and should get you to treatment ASAP, is a consistent increase or sudden escalation in the intensity and/or frequency of the "rituals" or protocols you use to manage this fear. If you can find repeated cleanliness protocols the only minimally disrupt your life or peace of mind that is fine. Escalating behavior or fear--not fine. Your particular "problem" can be very responsive to CBT and the SSRI's. It may take a bit of work to find the right combination but not nearly as much work as you are likely to do with out intervention
posted by rmhsinc at 9:12 AM on September 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

- What are your cleaning rituals(?)

Wash hands before cooking, and after using the restroom. Shower 3-5 times per week. Clean the kitchen when I make a mess.

- when do you take calculated risks(?)


Wait. . . maybe always.

- and when do you decide that worrying isn’t worth it?

100% of the time.

I doubt those answers to your specific questions are very useful. I agree with the others who see this as a psychological problem, not a cleanliness problem.
posted by General Tonic at 9:29 AM on September 23, 2010

I have OCD. I work in an environment that constantly exposes me to lots of potential pathogens. I work with other people (who do not have OCD) who work with very deadly pathogens.

Take a deep breath before you read my next statement, okay? It's a frightening one to hear when you are feeling the germophobia anxiety, but you need this objective perspective. Did you breathe? Okay.

I want you to understand that your reaction is disproportionate, and that what you are asking (for us to provide facts/statistics about chances of contracting illnesses, transmission routes, types of vectors) will not provide you with the reassurance you seek. Even in a highly controlled environment, there is always a non-zero chance of something going wrong. Always.

Your anxiety may not be assuaged by strict protocols. I've contracted zoonoses when I've been as strict as possible, and that's just how it goes in this line of work. I had to come to terms with that risk. Very few people have to confront their germophobia quite as head-on as I have had to, Germs are not the primary problem. OCD proper may not be your problem, either. But you genuinely need to get outside help for dealing with this.
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 9:32 AM on September 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

You seem not quite sure if this is a problem for you or not. If you decide you'd rather invest time in getting rid of your germaphobia rather than perfecting your routine, 'exposure with response prevention' is the gold standard for treatment. The success rates are super high and if you're willing to put in the work and push yourself a bit you can get more comfortable with your environment in a short period of time. Not saying that you "have" to go the therapy route, but wanted to point you in the direction of what research shows as highly effective if you do decide (now or later) to check it out. Even if you don't get rid of all your cleanliness concerns, you'll be much less bothered by things, which sounds like it would be a relief.
posted by gilsonal at 9:39 AM on September 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

I can vouch for what gilsonal is saying. I'm not saying I recommend going out and taking a job that means you occasionally encounter scrapie sheep and CWD deer. I am saying that exposure therapy* works.

posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 10:11 AM on September 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

My main (only?) germ obsession involves shopping cart handles. I always wipe them off with the wipes that most grocery stores have now. (If they don't, I am very careful not to touch my face at all while shopping and use hand sanitizer when I get into the car). I read somewhere that grocery cart handles are a major way bad germs get spread around.
posted by kirst27 at 12:41 PM on September 23, 2010

Look at all the germs/bugs you've had (and the fact you're conflating two quite different things should highlight the problem here is internal, not external), and guess what? You're actually 100% okay. There is no reason to think that further exposures will be any more damaging.

In fact - and this might gross you out - but your skin, digestive systems, all kinds of parts of your body, are crawling with microscopic life, nematodes, bacteria etc all the time. most of the genetic material on/in your body is not human.

And you're okay. More than okay, you need a lot of that cruft to actually function. Participating in the environment means interacting with it. Sometimes you get sick, and that's a-okay. You can fumigate, take antibiotics, etc and then get better. It's truly not the end of the world.
posted by smoke at 5:56 PM on September 23, 2010

"This particular friend is a teacher and is usually fighting a cold, so she coughs a lot and blows her nose without washing her hands a lot, and then tries to touch me or stroke my hair. I think this is disgusting and unsanitary, but would like to know if I’m being too picky about contact with her. I’ve noticed that my friend isn’t the only person with looser hand-washing criteria than mine – many food service workers here don’t wash their hands, or touch things like money or broom handles before handling my food with their bare hands."

Yuch! I don't think you are being too picky about these things. I'm not sure how to deal with a friend like that -- maybe keep handing her your bottle of hand sanitizer and mentioning how you get everything that comes around? I would not return to a restaurant that is so lazy about basic cleanliness.

I'm a professional microbiologist and catch a lot of colds, so I've thought about the general germs thing a bit. You can improve your chances of avoiding disease by doing moderate, regular exercise and cultivating an optimistic, low-stress outlook. Be well-rested and eat a balanced diet. As was said before, don't touch your face. Wash your hands frequently, including after using the bathroom and before touching anything that will go in your mouth. It may help to wash your hands after being out, because you'll be less likely to transfer germs on your hands onto surfaces where you are likely to pick them back up again. Avoid sick people. There is no benefit to antimicrobial soaps compared to regular soap in the household context. Buy lettuce by the head, not in a bag of leaves that have been mixed together from various sources. Similarly, don't eat undercooked eggs at restaurants that crack many eggs and pool them. Rare steak is safer than rare ground beef. As KokuRyu said, catching these diseases probably isn't really helping. (There is evidence that exposure to bacteria and parasites can be beneficial to children's developing immune systems, but you are beyond that stage.) Be aware that you can try to have good habits, but you won't avoid it all.
posted by SandiBeech at 12:35 PM on September 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thank you everyone for your responses. You've given me a lot to think about.
posted by pluot at 6:43 AM on September 26, 2010

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