Societal Germophobia: the trouble with a culture suffering from OCD

The following is a slightly expanded, and much more hyperlinked, version of an essay that was broadcast on the series The Moral Is, on Valley Public Radio, KVPR, Fresno, California, on September 18, 2011.  (Which, incidentally, happened to be just after the release of Contagion, the movie that has probably increased our fear of germs!)

ResearchBlogging.orgA recent TV ad hawks a new Kleenex product: single-use hand-towels to replace the obsolete, unhealthy cloth towels we’ve used forever in our bathrooms! Tag line: “Your hands are only as clean as the towel used to dry them.” These new “towels” are supposedly more hygienic because, you know, those old cloth ones become so chock full of germs!!

Of course, Kleenex is playing on our fears to create new profits. Just look at how many antibacterial products fill your supermarket shelves: soaps, wipes, sprays, hand sanitizers… Even Louis Pasteur, whose germ theory of disease helped save millions of lives, might be flabbergasted by how far the health-products industry has run with our fear of all those germs he unleashed!

One consequence is a lesson we’re learning the hard way: bacteria are not static entities easily wiped out by our clever antibiotics, but dynamic lifeforms able to evolve rapidly under new selection pressures. Indiscriminate use of antibiotics has even rendered our hospitals unsafe, filled with multi-drug-resistant “superbugs” (e.g., MRSA). We are down to a faltering last line of defense (a few ultra-potent drugs) which too shows signs of breach. Yet we continue dousing everything around us in antibiotics. Our obsession with hygiene also contributes to the rise in allergies because our bodies don’t get the chance to encounter and develop defenses against many antigens, and overreact even to harmless things!

Meanwhile, microbiologists, modern descendants of Pasteur, have discovered something that should give us further pause: our own bodies are literally teeming with bacteria!! Human bodies serve as habitat for colonies of hundreds of kinds of bacteria! We, each of us, carry more bacterial cells in/on our bodies than actual human cells! As Ed Yong put it on BBC radio this week, we should consider ourselves not human so much as “a universe of bacteria in a “human shaped sack””! Rugged individuals? Nah! We are in fact multitudes of species; our bodies, whole ecosystems of…  germs! 

But wait, don’t freak out!! 

Most of the bacteria in our bodies are actually beneficial to us, acting symbiotically to protect and nurture our tissues in ways we barely understand. You may already know that bacteria in our guts help process a variety of foods that our own enzymes cannot handle. Some break down cellulose so we get nourishment from plants, some manufacture essential vitamins and amino acids, while others remove toxins or ward off infections. Scientists have recently found bacteria in the human mouth that actually help strengthen enamel, not cause tooth decay! Yes! How long before we see a probiotic bacterial mouthwash on the market?

A new picture is emerging which suggests that some of our diseases may result from imbalances in our bacterial colonies. Our penchant for using powerful antibiotics is rather like using napalm to rid your garden of a few weeds! Doctors already recommend probiotic capsules and yogurts to be taken alongside antibiotics to help repopulate our digestive tracts with healthy bacteria. May we soon see more products that restore bacteria to other parts of our bodies and our habitats damaged by excessive cleaning? We are already seeing a boom in probiotics, raising fears that the pendulum, beginning to swing the other way, may be pushed too far in that other direction by the same market forces that bring us all those cleaning products.

Germophobia, excessive hand-washing – these are symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, a psychiatric condition not easy to treat. How does one treat an entire society exhibiting symptoms of OCD? 

Pass me that new tissue would you, not the sterile one, but the one soaked in good bacteria?


  1. Okada, H., Kuhn, C., Feillet, H., & Bach, J. (2010). The ‘hygiene hypothesis’ for autoimmune and allergic diseases: an update Clinical & Experimental Immunology, 160 (1), 1-9 DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2249.2010.04139.x
  2. Pflughoeft, K. J., & Versalovic, J. (2011). Human Microbiome in Health and Disease Annual Review of Pathology: Mechanisms of Disease, 7 (1) DOI: 10.1146/annurev-pathol-011811-132421
  3. Xu, J. (2003). Inaugural Article: Honor thy symbionts Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100 (18), 10452-10459 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1734063100
  4. Crielaard, W., Zaura, E., Schuller, A., Huse, S., Montijn, R., & Keijser, B. (2011). Exploring the oral microbiota of children at various developmental stages of their dentition in the relation to their oral health BMC Medical Genomics, 4 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1755-8794-4-22


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