A person who cannot stop washing their hands because they are irrationally afraid of germs may be suffering from mysophobia. /SIMPHIWE NKWALI
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Germs are everywhere but if you're forever trying to dodge them, you may have a problem.

If someone refused to shake your hand because they are scared of germs, you would probably be offended, right?

Believe it or not, there are people who are so scared of germs that it has manifested into a phobia. They constantly wash their hands and try to avoid physical contact like handshakes, hugs and even kisses. Imagine what effect that can have on interpersonal relationships.

But being a germaphobe is no joke. It is a real neurological disorder that affects 26% of people in America and world statistics are estimated to be triple that number.

Occupational therapist Bontle Mahupela says: "The technical medical term for germaphobia is actually mysophobia, which is the irrational fear of germs. Most people may be puzzled by the contradiction of the use of the word 'irrational' when it comes to germs, as they are not exactly a good, friendly thing; in fact the contamination of germs has been known to cause diseases and, in some situations, death.

"That said, while some germs are airborne and even waterborne, a contamination of germs usually happens in extreme cases where there is active, direct and constant exposure to a germ-infested environment or when someone's immune system is compromised.

"While it is true that we come into contact with germs on a daily basis, and should take measures to protect ourselves, the fact is that our bodies are strong enough to fight off any contact with germs if we have a healthy immune system.

"The irrationality of people with mysophobia is that they believe that any exposure to germs will infect them and lead to a morbid end."

Mahupela says there are several reasons why someone becomes a germaphobe.

"Mysophobia is closely related to obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), which is an anxiety disorder that can take on various forms like constant cleaning, an extreme attempt to maintain order or even being a 'checker', which is a constant second-guessing of oneself when it comes to having locked the door, switched off the stove, flushed the toilet, etc.

"Most people who have an OCD that manifests into the constant need to clean eventually become germaphobes, as they believe that any dirt that comes into contact with their clean space is germ-infested and can severely affect their health." Mahupela says.

"Another reason why people become germaphobes is because their parents were germaphobes. Often times the extreme fear of germs can be learned behaviour by the kids, who in turn become germaphobes themselves."

Friends and family can also contribute to encouraging mysophobia. She says society tends to label someone who exhibits signs of the disorder as simply being a neat freak.

"This is not to imply that everyone who likes being neat and keeping a tidy space has mysophobia," adds Mahupela.

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