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Germs: Resistance is Futile

The following is based in part on an excerpt from our book Obsessive Compulsive Disorder For Dummies. We’ve added a little discussion as well. It illustrates that OCD and so-called “normal” can be a fine line to draw at times.

Like most “mental disorders” OCD appears to represent a normal process that spins out of control. Perhaps making matters worse, the media seizes upon reports from researchers about hidden sources of germs, viruses, and bacteria. When they report on this concern, those with OCD worry all the more and people without OCD start wondering if they should be more worried.

For example, many people with OCD vacuum for hours hoping to eliminate dust and dirt in their homes. Research conducted by Dr. Charles Gerba at the University of Arizona recently found that household vacuum cleaners not only scatter germs throughout the house, but also provide a safe haven for accumulating bacteria. Furthermore, vacuum brushes harbor fecal material, mold, and even E. coli.

What to do about this situation? One allegedly serious recommendation has been to spray antibacterial disinfectant on vacuum brushes after every use. Who has time for that? Another solution that’s been recommended in the media is to buy a new type of vacuum that ostensibly kills bacteria and germs through the use of an ultraviolet, germicidal light.

Other researchers have found bacteria and fecal matter in all sorts of places–in ice machines at restaurants, on restaurant menus, escalator handrails, and hotel room pillows and bedding. Therefore, would it not seem logical to suggest not using ice machines, not allowing a menu to touch your plates, washing your hands after selecting your food from the infected menu, not holding on to escalator handrails, and bringing your own clean bedding to your hotel room?

Admittedly, when we read such articles, we too start to feel a little squeamish. We’ve been in a few seedy hotel rooms and touched a few sticky menus. Where should you draw the line?

The problem with these studies and recommendations is that no one has proved that any of these sources cause significant amounts of illness or disease. Though reasonable precautions are always a good idea, you can easily start down the disinfectant road and never return. Bacteria and germs exist everywhere. You cannot eliminate all of them, and you can spend huge amounts of time and money trying.

Furthermore, if you did succeed in eliminating all germs and bacteria from your environment, your immune system would fail to develop fully. And we know from research that kids brought up in unusually clean environments have more allergies than those raised in homes with a normal amount of dirt. Ben Franklin was right; moderation is generally the best course.

But if you have OCD, your ability to distinguish between what’s moderate and appropriate from what’s extreme and dysfunctional is likely to be impaired. That’s why professional help is so important for many. Let us know if you have questions. More to come…



Germs: Resistance is Futile

Charles H. Elliott, Ph.D.

Charles H. Elliott, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and a Founding Fellow in the Academy of Cognitive Therapy. He is also a member of the faculty at Fielding Graduate University. He specializes in the treatment of adolescents and adults with obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety, anger, depression, and personality disorders. Dr. Elliott is coauthor of: Overcoming Anxiety For Dummies (2nd Ed), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder For Dummies, Seasonal Affective Disorder For Dummies, Anxiety and Depression Workbook For Dummies, Depression For Dummies, Why Can't I Get What I Want?, Why Can’t I Be the Parent I Want to Be?, and Hollow Kids: Recapturing the Soul of a Generation Lost to the Self-Esteem Myth. His website is:

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APA Reference
Elliott, C. (2009). Germs: Resistance is Futile. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 19, 2020, from


Last updated: 9 Mar 2009
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