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Mental Health Center

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Cleanliness Rules Germaphobes' Lives

Germaphobes are obsessed with sanitation and feel compelled to clean excessively, but they're really suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder.

When Is Cleanliness a Problem?

Every office has its neat freak. Maybe it's the woman who cleans her cubicle every morning and keeps everything arranged just so. Is she just a perfectionist or is she driven by OCD? It can be hard to tell at first because OCD is a secretive illness, says Mary Guardino. She is the executive director of Freedom From Fear, the national mental illness advocacy organization she founded in Staten Island, N.Y., in 1984. "When you first meet her, you notice how nice and organized and clean everything is. But she may be hiding her rituals. If she heard a co-worker got the flu, she'd fear she might have touched something that person handled, so she'll sneak into the bathroom to wash."

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Guardino says a clinician looks for these signs of OCD:

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  • The obsession with contamination is gradually taking over the person's life and actions.

  • The individual engages in ritual cleaning or washing at least one hour a day.

  • Acting out the rituals is done to relieve anxiety.

  • The person knows the obsession with germs is foolish but feels compelled to wash or clean over and over.

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"People who have OCD really don't want to be that way," Guardino tells WebMD. On the other hand, people who have obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD), which is less serious than OCD, pride themselves on being neat freaks. Felix Unger, of The Odd Couple, for example. "It didn't bother Felix that he ran around with a paper towel and Windex. It bothered Oscar. Also Felix probably didn't clean a surface over and over. He thought his behavior was appropriate because he needed to have things perfect. He didn't want to change."

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