Naomi Carr
Author: Naomi Carr Medical Reviewer: Morgan Blair Last updated:

Nosophobia is an anxiety disorder called specific phobia. It causes an extreme and disproportionate fear of contracting a life-threatening illness, which may significantly impact daily and professional functioning. Treatment for nosophobia can include therapy, medication, and self-care.


What is nosophobia?

Nosophobia is the uncontrollable and extreme fear of contracting a life-threatening illness. It can cause persistent anxiety and panic attacks, which may lead to impaired functioning and avoidance of certain situations [1][2].

Nosophobia is similar to hypochondria, or illness anxiety disorder (IAD), although there are slight differences between these conditions. While IAD is listed as a condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), nosophobia is not [3][4].

Nosophobia is considered to be a specific phobia. Phobias are a type of anxiety disorder involving intense, irrational, and disproportionate fear and anxiety of a specific stimulus, which may be a situation, place, person, or object [3].

Symptoms of nosophobia

Symptoms of nosophobia may vary depending on the individual but commonly include [1][3][4]:

  • An uncontrollable fear of contracting a serious illness- usually focused on one specific condition, such as cancer, HIV, or
  • Severe anxiety when thinking about a certain
  • Believing they will die because of this
  • Avoiding people or places that are thought to increase the risk of catching a
  • Panic attack symptoms due to this fear, including physical symptoms such as increased heart rate, nausea, feeling dizzy and faint, tight chest, trouble breathing, sweating, and dry
  • Inability to stop thinking about contracting a
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Impaired ability to
  • Social withdrawal
  • Symptoms of other mental health conditions, such as other types of anxiety disorders, depression, OCD, PTSD, and substance abuse

Nosophobia triggers, causes, and risk factors

Nosophobia does not have one specific cause and is likely developed due to several contributing risk factors, which may vary from person to person.

Studying diseases

Nosophobia is commonly found among medical students and individuals learning about certain diseases. Studies have found that medical students may be at an increased risk of developing nosophobia after learning about the symptoms of a life-threatening disease [1].

This increased risk may also be associated with exposure to unwell people and the anxieties and stresses of medical school.

Childhood illness

Studies have shown that individuals who experience serious illnesses in childhood may be more likely to develop nosophobia or illness anxiety disorder [5].

Similarly, individuals who were exposed to a traumatic experience in childhood relating to illness may be at a higher risk of developing nosophobia. This could include witnessing a family member or loved one being treated for or dying from a serious condition [6].


Research suggests that people with a family history of anxiety disorders, such as specific phobias, may be at an increased risk of developing a specific phobia. This suggests that genetic factors can influence the risk of developing nosophobia [7].

Additionally, it is possible for various personality traits to be inherited, which may also impact the likelihood of developing nosophobia. For example, parents who are neurotic, obsessive, or overly concerned about cleanliness may pass these traits onto their children, which could increase the risk of health anxieties [1].


Along with genetic factors, individuals exposed to family members with anxieties, phobias, and neurotic personality traits may also develop the same traits as learned behaviors. As such, it is unclear to what extent genetic and environmental factors influence the development of nosophobia and other phobias, although they are likely to impact this risk concurrently [6].

Additionally, nosophobia may be more likely during times of national or worldwide illness epidemics. For example, studies have shown that many people become increasingly afraid of contracting life-threatening illnesses during outbreaks or regular news reporting of conditions, such as COVID-19, Ebola, and HIV [1][4].

Studies also suggest that factors such as gender, socioeconomic status, and access to appropriate and adequate healthcare can also impact the risk of developing nosophobia [1].

Diagnosing nosophobia

Many people with nosophobia or other specific phobias are likely to avoid seeking professional advice. This could partly be due to anxieties around receiving a diagnosis [4]. However, if nosophobia is untreated, it can continue to worsen and may cause increasing impacts on quality of life and functioning.

When making a diagnosis, doctors will ask questions relating to the presenting symptoms. For example, they may wish to know when the symptoms began, how they are affecting the individual’s life, and if any circumstances worsen symptoms. Additionally, they will gather information about the individual’s physical and mental health history and family history.

They will utilize diagnostic criteria for a specific phobia outlined in the DSM-5 to inform their diagnosis, which includes [3]:

  • A disproportionate and extreme fear of contracting a life-threatening
  • Symptoms that cause impairments in social or professional functioning
  • Avoidance of situations that increase
  • Symptoms that have persisted for at least six months and are not due to another

Nosophobia treatment

Treatment for specific phobias can involve therapy and medications. Treatments may vary depending on the phobia, although evidence around the effectiveness of treatment for each type of phobia is somewhat limited. As such, effective treatments may depend on the individual and their response to treatment.


Therapeutic interventions for specific phobias often involve the use of systematic desensitization. This typically includes cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a therapeutic approach that helps individuals recognize and alter harmful thought and behavior patterns [8].

A specialized type of CBT, known as exposure therapy, has been found to be effective for many individuals with specific phobias. The aim of exposure therapy is to gradually expose the individual to their fear and increase desensitization. Thus, they can learn to cope with and build a tolerance to the distress caused by the feared stimulus [8][9].

Other types of therapy may also be beneficial, particularly for individuals with past traumatic experiences or comorbid conditions such as depression and other anxiety disorders. This could include psychodynamic therapy, interpersonal therapy, and family therapy.


Medications can be prescribed to help individuals manage symptoms of anxiety and reduce the distress caused by their phobia. This could include [2][8][9]:

  • Antidepressants: Antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are often prescribed to help manage symptoms of anxiety and co-occurring depressive
  • Beta-blockers: Beta-blockers, such as propranolol, are found to be effective at reducing the acute symptoms of anxiety and can take effect quickly. This may be particularly useful for individuals who experience panic attacks or require support in reducing symptoms that impact their professional functioning.
  • Benzodiazepines: Benzodiazepines, such as diazepam and lorazepam, are fast-acting and effective medications for treating acute anxiety symptoms. However, they can cause a risk of abuse, misuse, and dependence, so are not prescribed for long-term use,and must be used with caution.


Individuals who experience intense fear and anxiety can utilize self-care techniques to help reduce their symptoms. This can include [8]:

  • Relaxation techniques
  • Breathing techniques
  • Yoga and meditation
  • Utilizing a sleep schedule
  • Avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and illicit substances
  • Regularly exercising
  • Communicating with supportive friends and family
  • Attending support groups

Nosophobia complications

If nosophobia is left untreated, it may result in [1][4]:

  • Increasing anxiety symptoms and panic attacks
  • Increasing avoidance of social or professional situations
  • Increasing impairments in social or professional functioning
  • Inability to determine the presence of significant symptoms and health risks
  • Avoidance of professional advice and treatment for fear of diagnoses

As such, it is advisable to receive treatment for nosophobia, to prevent a worsening of symptoms and decreased quality of life.

Nosophobia vs. hypochondria: What’s the difference?

Nosophobia and hypochondria share similarities in that they are both related to anxieties around health. The two terms are often used interchangeably, which may contribute to the confusion around their definitions.

Although they are similar, the two conditions differ in several aspects, such as [1][3][4]:

  • Nosophobia relates to an extreme and uncontrollable fear of contracting a specific life-threatening illness. In contrast, hypochondria refers to the fear of developing any illness.
  • People with hypochondria may misinterpret minor symptoms to form a belief that they are at risk of severe illness, while individuals with nosophobia may have no symptoms but be uncontrollably afraid that they have a disease.
  • People with nosophobia may be unlikely to seek medical advice or treatment. In contrast, individuals with hypochondria are likely to visit their doctor regularly, although tend not to believe reassurances that they are well.

For example, someone with nosophobia might be intensely afraid that they are going to die from COVID-19, despite having no symptoms. Someone with hypochondria might experience a slight cough or tightness in their chest and be convinced that these are symptoms of COVID-19, despite negative test results.

Furthermore, the two conditions can occur simultaneously. For example, someone may be immensely afraid of developing a brain tumor despite having no symptoms (nosophobia). If they then experience a headache, they may become convinced that they have a brain tumor (hypochondria).

  1. Sherif, H.A., Tawfeeq, K., Mohamed, Z., Abdelhakeem, L., Tahoon, S.H., Mosa, M., Samy, K., Hamdy, K., Ellakwa, L., & Elnoamany, S. (2023). “Medical Student Syndrome”: A Real Disease or Just A Myth? – A Cross-Sectional Study at Menoufia University, Egypt. Middle East Current Psychiatry, Ain Shams University, 30(1), 42. Retrieved from
  2. Samra, C.K., & Abdijadid, S. (2022). Specific Phobia. In StatPearls [Internet].Treasure Island, FL: StatPearls Publishing. Retrieved from
  3. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5thedition. Arlington, VA: APA
  4. Obono Okoi, N., & Etim, J. (2020). Nosophobia, Hypochondriasis, and Willingness of People to Seek Healthcare Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic in Calabar Metropolis of Cross River State, Nigeria. Open Journal of Psychiatry & Allied Sciences, 26, 7. Retrieved from
  5. Alberts, N.M., Hadjistavropoulos, H.D., Sherry, S.B., & Stewart, S.H. (2016). Linking Illness in Parents to Health Anxiety in Offspring: Do Beliefs about Health Play a Role? Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 44(1), 18–29. Retrieved from
  6. Garcia, R. (2017). Neurobiology of Fear and Specific Phobias. Learning & Memory (Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y.), 24(9), 462–471. Retrieved from
  7. Villafuerte, S., & Burmeister, M. (2003). Untangling Genetic Networks of Panic, Phobia, Fear and Anxiety. Genome Biology, 4(8), 224. Retrieved from
  8. National Health Service. (Reviewed 2022). Phobias. NHS. Retrieved from
  9. Barnhill, J.W., (Revised 2023). Specific Phobias. MSD Manuals. Retrieved from
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Naomi Carr
Author Naomi Carr Writer

Naomi Carr is a writer with a background in English Literature from Oxford Brookes University.

Published: Oct 25th 2023, Last edited: Oct 25th 2023

Morgan Blair
Medical Reviewer Morgan Blair MA, LPCC

Morgan Blair is a licensed therapist, writer and medical reviewer, holding a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling from Northwestern University.

Content reviewed by a medical professional. Last reviewed: Oct 25th 2023