What Is Fear of Getting Sick (Nosophobia)?

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Nosophobia is an intense, persistent fear of getting sick.

While many people experience anxiety about their health, people with nosophobia can’t control their fear. They're often afraid of developing a specific disease or condition, such as heart disease, cancer, or sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Learn more about the fear of getting sick, including traits, symptoms, causes, and how to seek treatment when necessary.

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Definition

Nosophobia is a marked and ongoing fear of getting sick or fear of disease. It's a kind of specific phobia under the umbrella category of anxiety disorders in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

A specific phobia involves an overwhelming fear of an object or situation.

Examples of other specific phobias are the fear of heights (acrophobia) and the fear of small spaces (claustrophobia).

Someone with nosophobia might be immediately triggered by something that reminds them of their health-related anxiety. For example, a news story about a particular disease could cause them to have a panic attack (sudden, intense fear along with physical symptoms). They might also engage in avoidance behaviors, such as staying home from social gatherings for fear of acquiring illness. They might also feel extremely distressed when they hear about someone who gets sick.

Nosophobia vs. Illness Anxiety Disorder

Nosophobia is sometimes confused with illness anxiety disorder, which was previously known as hypochondria or hypochondriasis. In fact, some mental health professionals use the terms interchangeably. While they may overlap, there can be some differences between the two conditions.

People with nosophobia tend to fear a specific, well-known disease or disorderm while people with illness anxiety disorder tend to be afraid of sickness in general. They might think they're sicker than they are when they have few or minor symptoms. They might also rush to their healthcare provider, assuming they're sick when they have no symptoms at all.

If you suspect you have either nosophobia or illness anxiety disorder, your healthcare provider can help you reach the correct diagnosis.

Symptoms

Most of the symptoms of nosophobia, like other specific phobias, are similar to symptoms of other anxiety disorders. The symptoms of nosophobia may include:

  • Panic attacks
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Lack of productivity or difficulty concentrating, often due to insomnia (inability to fall asleep or stay asleep)
  • Persistent worries that interfere with daily life
  • Avoidance behaviors, such as staying away from social gatherings to avoid getting sick
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Nausea
  • Excessive sweating
  • Nightmares

Diagnosis

A qualified mental health professional can diagnose you with nosophobia based on the criteria for specific phobias in the DSM-5. To be considered a specific phobia, your fear of getting sick must meet the following conditions:

  • Your fear of illness is lasting, not situational or temporary, with anxiety persisting for six months or more.
  • The fear of getting sick interferes with other aspects of your daily life, such as work, school, or relationships.
  • Your fear and anxiety are disproportionate to the actual risk involved. For example, if someone actually is at high risk of developing a disease, they might not have nosophobia.

Ruling Out Alternatives to Nosophobia

Before you seek treatment from a mental health professional for nosophobia, your healthcare provider should rule out any possible physical illness. If you're having symptoms that worry you, you can talk to your healthcare provider about your concerns. 

Causes

There are various possible causes for the development of nosophobia, including comorbid mental health conditions (occurring simultaneously with nosophobia), environmental factors, and personal history. Here are some of the most common causes of nosophobia:

  • Past sicknesses or a family history of sickness or disease can lead someone to develop nosophobia later on in life. For example, someone who was seriously ill at one point in childhood might develop intense anxiety about getting sick as an adult.
  • People with other mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), are more likely to develop an intense fear of getting sick than the general public.
  • Exposure to news stories or other media about current widespread health problems, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, can trigger anxiety in some people and cause them to develop nosophobia.
  • There is some evidence that medical students, researchers, and others who spend a lot of time reading about various diseases for work or school might develop greater anxiety about their own health.

Treatment

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a type of psychotherapy, or talk therapy, is usually the preferred treatment for nosophobia. A therapist can help someone with nosophobia identify negative thought patterns about their health in order to change them. They can also help to target unwanted behaviors, such as avoidance behaviors, and change them over time.

Since nosophobia is an anxiety disorder, treating someone’s underlying anxiety through other methods can also help. For example, prescription antianxiety medication or antidepressants may provide relief.

Coping

In addition to mental health treatment, there are other coping methods that can help you manage your intense fear of getting sick. These methods may include:

  • Relaxation techniques: Relaxation techniques can help you manage your anxiety when panic sets in. Try breathing exercises or listening to soothing white noise or music.
  • Mindfulness techniques: Many specific phobias, including nosophobia, involve a fear of the future. Try to stay grounded and present with mindfulness techniques like yoga, walking, and meditation.
  • Exercise and nutrition: If you're worried about possible illnesses, it can help to take proactive steps to stay as healthy as possible. Exercise regularly, and make sure you're eating a balanced diet with all the vitamins and nutrients you need.
  • Good sleep habits: If you have insomnia due to your fear of getting sick, try practicing healthy sleep habits, such as turning off your devices an hour before bedtime and sleeping in a dark, cool room. A good night's sleep can also help you manage your anxiety during the day.
  • Support groups: There are plenty of peer support groups available, both in person and online, to help you manage your specific phobia or any other anxiety disorder. Talking to others with similar fears can help you find support, perspective, and valuable advice.

Summary

Nosophobia is a lasting and intense fear of getting sick. It's a type of anxiety disorder known as a specific phobia, which is a persistent fear of a certain object or situation. You might have nosophobia if you experience symptoms such as panic attacks and insomnia for six months or more in response to your fear of a specific illness or disease.

The causes of nosophobia might include past traumatic medical events, exposure to media coverage of epidemics or other serious health problems, and/or reading about medical conditions at work or in school. People with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and other mental health conditions are also at risk of developing nosophobia. The most common treatment for nosophobia is CBT.

A Word From Verywell

Some people who suspect they have nosophobia or other specific phobias might avoid seeking treatment out of a sense of shame. Others may think their fear of getting sick will lead therapists to doubt them.

But there is effective treatment available for you if you feel distressed about an illness or disease. If you think your fear of getting sick is interfering with your daily life, don’t be afraid to talk with your healthcare provider, who can refer you to a mental health professional, if needed.

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6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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