What Is Fear of Snakes (Ophidiophobia)?

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Ophidiophobia (also called ophiophobia) is an extreme fear of snakes. Many people are afraid of snakes, but those with ophidiophobia have an extreme and irrational amount of fear.

Ophidiophobia may occur alone or it can be part of a fear of reptiles, which is called herpetophobia.

In this article, you’ll learn the difference between a general fear of snakes and ophidiophobia, look at the characteristics, how it’s diagnosed, and hear about causes and treatments for it.

A woman with a frightened look on her face walks in the woods.

Alpgiray Kelem / Getty Images

Definition

Ophidiophobia is considered a specific phobia. Specific phobias are an intense, irrational fear of an object or situation that poses very little actual danger.

For many people, simply thinking about the phobia trigger can bring on severe anxiety.

Ophidiophobia is one of the most common specific phobias.

Other common types include arachnophobia (fear of spiders) and acrophobia (fear of heights).

The term ophidiophobia comes from the Greek word "ophio" or the modern Latin term "ophidia," which both mean snake or serpent, and the Greek word "phobia."

Types of Specific Phobia

  • Animal type (zoophobia): Snakes, spiders, dogs, etc.
  • Natural environment type: Heights, water, or lightning
  • Blood-injection-injury type: Seeing blood, getting a shot, or watching a medical procedure
  • Situational type: Airplanes, elevators, or enclosed places (claustrophobia)
  • Other: Fear of illness, fear of certain noises, fear of clowns, and others not covered above


Characteristics

A phobia is more than just fear. It’s normal to feel fear when you’re in danger. 

For example, if you’re out in the woods and see a rattlesnake poised to strike, fear is natural and a good thing. It floods your system with adrenaline and speeds up reaction time so you can take quick action to protect yourself (the “fight or flight” response).

Someone with ophidiophobia may have a panic attack from glimpsing a snake on television, from hearing someone talk about a snake, or from seeing one in a cage.

They may even be terrified of small, nonvenomous snakes that can’t harm them in any significant way.

Symptoms of ophidiophobia may include:

  • Emotional stress, anxiety, or panic
  • A sense of immediate danger or doom
  • A desire to escape
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Shaking
  • Shortness of breath or feeling that you’re being suffocated or choked
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Fear of losing control
  • Fear of death
  • Tingling sensations

You may go to great lengths to avoid snakes. This depends on the severity of your phobia.

It may be impossible for you to go hiking or camping due to your fear of encountering a snake. You may avoid pet stores or refuse to go to a home where someone keeps snakes as pets. You may not be able to watch movie scenes featuring snakes.

Recap

Ophidiophobia is an irrational fear of snakes. It's one of the most common specific phobias. The fear of a phobia is out of proportion to the actual threat. It can cause anxiety attacks and associated symptoms, including nausea, shaking, and dizziness. A phobia may limit your activities.

Diagnosis

Phobias like ophidiophobia are diagnosed based on symptoms. The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) lays out seven criteria:

  1. A persistent fear that’s excessive or unreasonable occurs when snakes are present or anticipated.
  2. Exposure to snakes almost always leads to an immediate anxiety response.
  3. You recognize the fear is excessive or out of proportion to the threat.
  4. You avoid places where snakes could be or have intense anxiety or distress when one is present.
  5. Avoidance behaviors, the anticipation of anxiety, or distress when a snake is present significantly interfere with your day-to-day life, or you have marked distress about the phobia itself.
  6. The fear is persistent, meaning you’ve had it for at least six months.
  7. No other mental disorder can explain the fear. Other possible diagnoses include obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social phobia, and panic disorder.

You may also be asked to fill out a diagnostic form called the Snake Questionnaire (SNAQ). SNAQ is based on DSM-5 criteria.

It's also validated by some research.

Your primary healthcare provider may be comfortable diagnosing a phobia. If not, they may refer you to a mental health specialist.

Causes

Experts don’t yet know the exact causes of phobias. They’ve identified a few factors that may contribute to their development, such as: 

  • Bad experiences: Traumatic events can stay with you for a long time. If you were bitten or badly frightened by a snake in early childhood, it may contribute to a phobia.
  • Learned responses: Seeing others have an extreme reaction to snakes may make you think snakes are more dangerous than they are.
  • Genetics: Phobias often run in families. Research suggests some people are more likely to develop phobias than others.
  • Long-term stress: Chronic stress can lower your ability to cope with intense situations, leading to a disproportionate fear response that may cause a phobia.
  • Brain chemistry: When out of balance, the chemicals (neurotransmitters) serotonin and dopamine can cause anxiety and contribute to phobias.

Some research suggests humans adapted to pay special attention to snakes because of the danger they posed to primitive people. In some, this heightened attention contributes to a phobia’s development.

Treatment

Not all phobias need to be treated. Your need for treatment depends on how much it impacts your life.

If your ophidiophobia causes distress and limits your activities, you may want to get treatment.

Treatment for specific phobias generally includes psychotherapy (talk therapy) and possibly medication.

Psychotherapy

Types of psychotherapy used for phobias include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): A type of talk therapy that helps you change harmful thought patterns.
  • Exposure therapy: Exposing you to snakes in a gradual way until you’re able to tolerate them. Typically, this starts with a picture and works up to an actual snake.
  • Technology-assisted therapy: Exposure therapy may be done using virtual reality or augmented reality.

Medications

Some evidence suggests that medications aren't very effective for treating phobias. However, some are commonly used and may offer some relief.

This can be especially true when combined with psychotherapy. Medications for treating phobias include:

  • Antidepressants: Such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can potentially decrease symptoms associated with phobias by changing brain chemistry over time.
  • Antianxiety drugs: Anxiolytics may help acutely in decreasing or preventing the fear response of phobias.
  • Beta-blockers: Typically used for high blood pressure, beta-blockers such as propranolol can decrease some of your body's responses associated with phobias.

You may also benefit from relaxation and deep-breathing exercises to calm your anxiety.

Summary

Ophidiophobia, or fear of snakes, is a type of specific phobia. Seeing a snake can trigger symptoms including anxiety, rapid heartbeat, and sweating. Your phobia may limit your activities.

Phobias are diagnosed based on symptoms outlined in the DSM-5. They're believed to be caused by a combination of genetics, brain chemistry, trauma, stress, and learned responses.

Treatment is typically psychotherapy, especially with exposure therapy, and possibly medications.

A Word From Verywell

Many phobias can be cured with proper treatment. You don’t have to live with the symptoms.

If your ophidiophobia affects your life and limits your activities, talk to your healthcare provider. They can refer you to mental health professionals who can help you heal and reclaim your life.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What's the most common phobia?

    The most common phobia in the United States is believed to be social phobia, also called social anxiety disorder. Social phobia isn't a specific phobia like ophidiophobia, rather a more complex anxiety disorder.

    The National Institute of Mental Health estimates just over 12% of adults will experience social phobia at some time in their lives.

  • Can phobias be cured?

    Yes, many phobias can be cured with the right form of treatment. This can include exposure therapy, CBT, and medications.

  • What is a complex phobia?

    Complex phobias involve fears about a circumstance or situation. Examples are agoraphobia and social phobia.

    Complex phobias tend to have a bigger impact on your life than specific phobias, such as ophidiophobia or arachnophobia.

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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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