Nosophobia’s Greek origin is a combination of “nosos,” meaning disease, and “phobos,” meaning fear. The Greek origin alludes to the definition of nosophobia which is an irrational and intense, uncontrollable fear of disease. So, what characterizes this specific phobia?

It’s common to become periodically anxious about contracting an infectious disease or severe sickness, especially if there’s an outbreak and many people are getting sick. However, for someone with nosophobia, anxiety about a specific disease can become so overwhelming that it gets to the point where routine activities like work, relationships, and socialization are affected.

Once commonly referred to as “medical student syndrome” or “medical students’ disease,” newer research suggests that nosophobia doesn’t necessarily affect more medical students than anyone else. 

Let’s look at some of the common symptoms, causes, risk factors, and treatment options for nosophobia. Armed with the right information and tools, you can find ways to lessen the frequency and severity of symptoms you may experience if you have a debilitating fear of disease.

Difference Between Nosophobia and Hypochondriasis

Nosophobia and illness anxiety disorder (hypochondriasis) are often confused. There are significant differences between the two, though.

  • Someone with illness anxiety disorder may constantly worry that they have or will develop a life-threatening sickness or disease.
  • Someone with nosophobia, however, will become increasingly (and often irrationally) fearful about contracting a specific disease — usually something that’s generally life-threatening and very well-known like heart disease or cancer. They may start to believe they have an actual physical symptom of that specific disease.

While nosophobia involves a fear of a specific disease, illness anxiety disorder is marked by more anxiety about illnesses in general. For example, someone with nosophobia might constantly fear developing a cranial tumor even if they’ve never had a headache. Someone with illness anxiety disorder, on the other hand, might worry that an occasional headache indicates a cranial tumor.

Another very distinct difference between the two conditions is that people with illness anxiety disorder are more likely to ask for reassurance or help in dealing with their symptoms. Most people (although not all) living with nosophobia don’t reach out for help. 

Symptoms of Nosophobia

The most prevalent symptom of nosophobia is simply an extreme, irrational fear of developing a specific disease. This excessive fear will often continue even after being examined by a physician and found to have no known symptoms to be concerned about. Over time, the constant and excessive fear of developing the disease can cause other symptoms, including:

  • Nausea
  • Sweating
  • Dizziness
  • Rapid pulse
  • Sleeping problems
  • Quick, shallow breathing

Someone with nosophobia may completely avoid the topic and any news about the disease they fear. Simply hearing about it can trigger both emotional and physical symptoms. They also might avoid going out to public spaces like grocery stores or movie theaters.

This isn’t true for all people who suffer from nosophobia, though. Others become obsessed with learning all they can about the disease they fear. They might spend hour after hour researching ailments or monitoring social media and other news outlets for information. It can consume their life. 

Causes and Risk Factors of Nosophobia

There are various possible causes for nosophobia. However, in most cases, the primary underlying cause cannot be determined. That said, there are known risk factors that may increase the chance of developing the condition.

Causes

When someone we’re close with has a serious medical condition and then experiences complications from it, it’s natural to worry that the same thing could happen to you. This is particularly true if you’re the person’s caretaker and you’ve been watching their symptoms evolve. Other possible causes of nosophobia include:

  • Having generalized anxiety about your health
  • Having someone close to you die from a certain disease
  • Having somatic amplification disorder, a condition that affects perception

Living through a major global health crisis may also cause nosophobia to develop in some people. This can be especially true when we’re inundated with stories about a disease on the news, from friends, or via various other channels.

“You certainly aren’t alone if you have a fear of developing an illness. The constant news coverage of the pandemic and other illnesses can trigger anxiety about our own health.”

Talkspace therapist Liz Kelly, LCSW

Risk factors

Some experts suggest that people who research health conditions regularly on the Internet may be at higher risk for developing nosophobia. You also may be more at risk if you have family members with nosophobia, or if someone in your family has another type of anxiety disorder.

Finally, the risk of developing nosophobia can increase if you or someone in your family is living with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder, or chronic depression.

Finding Treatment for Nosophobia

Nosophobia can be diagnosed when anxiety about developing a disease detracts from quality of life.If you think that you or a loved one has nosophobia, contact your primary healthcare provider and schedule an appointment. Your doctor can refer you to a specialist who understands nosophobia and can accurately diagnose you.

Therapy has proven quite successful for people with nosophobia. A therapist will utilize various techniques to help alleviate the symptoms you experience. Exposure therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) are the two most common. In some cases, medication can help too.

“Having an intense fear of developing an illness or disease can impact your daily life and functioning. Talking with a therapist helps you learn strategies to manage those fears of the unknown. A mental health professional can support you with identifying and shifting unhelpful thoughts so that you can work towards regaining a sense of calm and safety in your life.”

Talkspace therapist Liz Kelly, LCSW

Exposure therapy 

Exposure therapy helps you face what you fear in an environment where you know you’re safe. Your therapist will begin by teaching you coping skills to help you stay in control when thoughts about developing a disease strike you. With exposure therapy, you’ll learn meditation and relaxation techniques that help to calm your thoughts, manage your symptoms, and reduce the frequency of new symptoms developing. Gradually, you’ll find your tolerance increases as you intensify the exposure. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

CBT utilizes various methods to teach you to recognize your irrational fears and thoughts as they develop, whether it’s nosophobia, autophobia, or atychiphobia. This type of therapy helps us look at how our thoughts impact our feelings, which impact our behaviors. You’ll then learn to challenge those unhealthy thoughts with rational, more productive ones. If we can work on changing our automatic negative thoughts, we can ideally change how we feel and what we do.

Reframing irrational fear and putting it into perspective can be very helpful for people with various other anxiety-based disorders, as well. Online cognitive behavioral therapy for nosophobia may include elements of exposure therapy as well.

Medication

There are no medications known to effectively treat specific phobias. However, some drugs can be helpful for certain people when used along with cognitive behavior therapy or exposure therapy, and other self-help tools like meditation, yoga, and exercise. For example, beta-blockers or benzodiazepines might help.

  • Beta-blockers can prevent blood pressure from spiking as well as help you maintain a consistent and healthy heart rate. 
  • Benzodiazepines induce mild sedative effects that can help keep the mind calm during periods of anxious stimulation. Benzos, as they’re known, should only be used with caution and under strict supervision as they’re known to be addictive. For this reason, they’re only typically used as a very short-term solution. 

Fearing sickness and disease is natural. Almost everyone finds they do it at one time or another. This has become especially true with the plethora of medical information we have access to via the Internet. It’s OK to be curious and research sickness and diseases.

However, if your research into a specific disease gets to the point where it’s affecting your daily life, consider speaking with a therapist who understands what you’re going through. Some studies have shown that phobia therapy success rates are very high. Even if you’re experiencing an intense fear of disease, know that you’re not alone on your journey to healing.