A fear of being sick and the dreaded Norovirus


What is emetophobia?

Emetophobia is an extreme fear of being sick, or being around someone who is sick, or who looks as though they may be sick.

This phobia is hidden because those that experience it have severe social anxiety and perfectionism, so they are very fearful of telling anyone about it. In fact, they may not even tell their nearest and dearest, including partners, through a fear of being judged and looking stupid.

Surprisingly 3-5% of the population experience this phobia and 97% of those are female. The reason for this is that girls tend to be brought up with “all things nice and sweet” and things such as wee, poo and sick are disgusting! This is called disgust propensity. Boys on the other hand laugh at all that stuff and it doesn’t cause them any discomfort talking about it or seeing/doing it.


How does emetophobia affect people?

People who suffer this phobia feel anxiety around 95% of their waking lives because there are potential threats all around them. For example, the food they eat, how clean their homes are or their hands, how poorly other people are e.g. at work, if people are drunk, whether food is cooked properly, public transport……..this list is indefinite.

Sufferers live their lives trying to control every aspect of their waking days to avoid the risk of being sick or being near someone who could be sick. They become obsessed with identifying, controlling and over analysing situations in order to feel that they can cope. In fact, this tunnel vision only increases their focus on all things scary and their anxiety levels are never reduced.

Emetophobia can lead to avoidance or control of all sorts of situations and foods – this list is an example of the most common:

  • Obsessive cleaning and excessive hand cleaning

  • Checking sell by and use by dates every time

  • Avoiding restaurants

  • Avoiding chicken

  • Avoiding public transport

  • Ensuring food is well cooked

  • Avoiding people who you know are or have been ill

  • Avoiding getting pregnant

  • Panic attacks if someone if ill near you or you feel ill

  • Avoiding using public toilets

Emetophobia has a similarity with some other disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), health anxiety and panic disorder (Boschen, 2007; Veale & Lambrou, 2006; Veale, 2009).  

Unfortunately, the months of October and November seem to see seasonal peaks in norovirus, so emetophobes become extra vigilant and always on heightened alert. Therefore, their anxiety levels are at an annual high.

Don’t worry, help is out there. Look out for my follow up article on what causes emetophobia and how to overcome it, next week.