Compulsive hand-washing and contamination fear go hand in hand (no pun intended). The former is born from the latter, which is an irrational fear of dirt and germs. Those suffering from contamination fear believe that they will contract HIV/AIDs from turning knobs on a sink or touching a shopping cart without gloves. As a result, they develop extremely meticulous cleaning habits, going as far as to wear gloves and take their shoes off by pushing the heel of one shoe onto the toes of another. This unhealthy obsession is one that can strain close relationships as many sufferers of contamination fear develop a need to protect those around them, essentially pushing their lifestyle onto others.
There isn’t a specific cause for these disorders. Compulsive hand-washing is prevalent in so many Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) patients that it’s now considered a symptom of OCD. Like OCD, the biological part of this compulsion has been linked to a lack of serotonin in the brain. Many psychologists believe that there is more than one cause, linking it back to a combination of biological and environmental factors. These are believed to be the same factors that trigger OCD, which also aren’t well-known aside from genetics and abnormalities in the chemistry of the brain.
People who suffer from compulsive hand-washing are relatively easy to identify. They go as far as wearing gloves and using paper towels to avoid something as harmless as touching a sink with their bare hands. Many of them develop markings – redness, bumps and skin lesions from repeatedly washing their hands. Compulsive hand-washers soon progress to developing washing rituals, cleaning one finger at a time and going out of their way to clean the dirt out from underneath their fingernails. They believe that touching blood can cause them to contract HIV and that contact with semen can impregnate their partners, even if it isn’t associated with vaginal intercourse.
Treatment options for compulsive hand-washing and contamination fear are relatively similar to those for OCD since the two are considered to be so closely related. Some may prescribe antidepressants as a response to the lack of serotonin in the brain of compulsion sufferers. Another option is Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which pairs up sufferers of these compulsions with therapists who will help them tackle their problems and challenge the thought processes behind them. Therapists will most likely have a compulsive hand-washer touch something dirty like the door knob of a public restroom and prohibit them from washing their hands. CBT is a great long-term solution that can help hand-washers overcome their compulsions.
Contamination fear and compulsive hand-washing might seem like funny issues but they’re not. Their inability to directly affect people physically doesn’t mean they aren’t just as dangerous as other addictive and compulsive behaviors. Many of these people alienate themselves from their friends, families and lovers through their constant compulsion to go overboard with a “clean” lifestyle. Some will find themselves pushing this onto others, which is naturally unattractive, and those people will struggle to remain close to them. If you suffer from compulsive hand-washing or know someone who does, then taking action can have a positive effect on someone’s life for years down the road.