Nosophobia (Fear of Disease)
What is nosophobia?
People who have nosophobia have an illogical fear of developing a specific disease. Usually, the illness they fear is life-threatening. The word nosophobia originates from the Greek words for disease, “nosos,” and fear, “phobos.”
Nosophobia is sometimes called medical students’ disease because students may believe they have a disease after studying it. Other terms for nosophobia include disease phobia, pathophobia and hypochondria. A related and fairly new phobia is cyberchondria. This refers to people reading about a certain disease online (cyberspace) and then believing they have, or will get, that illness.
How common is nosophobia?
It’s hard knowing exactly how many people have a specific phobia, like nosophobia. We do know that about 1 in 10 American adults and 1 in 5 teenagers will deal with a specific phobia disorder at some point in their lives, though. And the number of people with nosophobia may have increased in recent years due to growing worries about getting sick with COVID-19.
What’s the difference between nosophobia, hypochondria and somatic symptom disorder?
These conditions all lead to excessive worries about illnesses without actual evidence of having a disease. But there are differences:
- Nosophobia: Someone with nosophobia is afraid of developing a specific disease. The disease they fear is often chronic, life-changing or life-threatening. They may think they already have symptoms or are at greater risk for getting the disease than they really are. Feared diseases may include cancers, multiple sclerosis, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and HIV/AIDS.
- Hypochondria: Illness anxiety disorder (IAD) is the medically correct term for hypochondria. A person with IAD has worries about getting or being sick from many different diseases. They don’t fixate on one particular illness. Instead, they worry about a variety of ailments ranging from a cold to cardiovascular disease.
- Somatic symptom disorder: A person with somatic symptom disorder obsessively worries about their health — just like someone with nosophobia or IAD. However, they have actual physical symptoms of an illness but no diagnosable cause.
Symptoms and Causes
Who is at risk for nosophobia (fear of disease)?
Research indicates that all sexes and ages are at risk for nosophobia. But people who are older might be more prone to nosophobia because of a fear of dying.
People with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) may also have a higher risk. OCD causes you to need to have control over situations, including whether or not you get sick.
Other risk factors include:
- Being seriously ill as a child.
- Family history of inheritable disease.
- Caring for a loved one with a serious illness.
- Loss of a loved one to an incurable disease.
- Growing up with a parent who has illness anxiety disorder (often called hypochondria), phobias or anxiety disorder.
- Gene changes (mutations) that increase your risk of an anxiety disorder.
What other phobias are associated with nosophobia?
It’s not uncommon to have several phobias that share some connection. Someone with nosophobia may also have:
- Carcinophobia (fear of getting cancer).
- Cardiophobia (fear of heart disease or heart attacks).
- Dermatophobia (fear of skin diseases).
- Hemophobia (fear of blood).
- Pharmacophobia (fear of medication).
- Thanatophobia (fear of death).
- Trypanophobia (fear of needles).
What are the symptoms of nosophobia?
People with nosophobia may make frequent trips to the doctor and request medical tests. Or they may develop a fear of doctors (iatrophobia) because they’re afraid they’ll find out they have a disease. They often feel that doctors don’t take their symptoms and concerns seriously.
Signs of nosophobia include:
- Avoiding people or places to lower your risk of getting a disease.
- Constantly researching a specific disease and its symptoms.
- Extreme anxiety about your health.
- Obsessing over normal body functions, such as heart rate, or worrying that something like a cough is a sign of lung cancer.
- Oversharing your symptoms and health status with others.
- Repeatedly checking for signs of illness, such as taking your blood pressure or temperature.
- Seeking reassurances from others about your symptoms or health.
- Uneasiness with normal bodily functions like gas or sweating.
Diagnosis and Tests
How is nosophobia diagnosed?
Healthcare providers always want to be sure that you don’t have a particular disease before thinking you may have nosophobia. They’ll ask lots of questions about your symptoms and will likely run some tests to make sure you’re not ill.
The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) helps mental health professionals like psychologists diagnose phobia disorders based on your symptoms and how they affect your quality of life. There isn’t a specific test for nosophobia, but your healthcare provider may use standardized questions to help them understand your fears and your real risk of having a disease.
A persistent fear about having a specific disease or developing one is a top sign of nosophobia. Your healthcare provider may diagnose this phobia if symptoms last for six months or longer, even after medical tests show you don’t have that disease.
Management and Treatment
What are ways to overcome nosophobia?
A mental health specialist can help you overcome a fear of disease. You may benefit from therapies like:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): A form of psychotherapy (talk therapy), CBT helps you understand why you think and feel the way you do about diseases and your health. Then, you learn how to change these perceptions.
- Exposure therapy: A therapist teaches you relaxation techniques to use, while gradually exposing you to news stories and information about diseases or disease outbreaks.
- Hypnotherapy: Hypnotherapy uses guided relaxation techniques to help you change your perceptions about a disease and your health risks.
- Medications: Anti-anxiety drugs and antidepressants may ease symptoms while you engage in therapy. You may not need these medications if you keep up with your therapies.
What are the complications of nosophobia?
Constantly worrying about your health can cause unnecessary stress. And it can negatively affect your physical and mental well-being. Nosophobia may cause you to miss out on time with loved ones because you’re overly concerned about your health.
Nosophobia also puts you at risk for:
When should I call the doctor?
You should call your healthcare provider if you experience:
- Panic attacks.
- Persistent anxiety that interferes with daily life or sleeping.
- Signs of depression or problems with substances.
What questions should I ask my doctor?
You may want to ask your healthcare provider:
- What’s causing this phobia?
- What’s the best treatment for me?
- How long will I need therapy?
- Can medications help?
A note from Cleveland Clinic
The COVID-19 pandemic and the unlimited amount of information (and misinformation) available online about all types of diseases may spark or heighten a fear of illness. It’s smart to take steps to lower your risk for diseases, especially during an outbreak or if you have risk factors. But obsessively worrying about being sick is unhealthy for you physically and mentally. Your healthcare provider can help you improve symptoms of nosophobia so you can enjoy better overall health.
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