What Is Emetophobia?

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry
Updated February 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Specific phobias are a category of the anxiety disorders section of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). One phobia that may fall under the category of a specific phobia is emetophobia. Understanding this phobia can help you support yourself or loved ones experiencing this condition or symptom. 

Effective treatment for phobias often requires professional help

What is emetophobia? 

The American Psychological Association defines a phobia as "a persistent, irrational fear of a specific situation, object, or activity." Some examples of phobia include thalassophobia (fear of the sea), acrophobia (fear of heights), and nyctophobia (fear of the dark). 

Emetophobia refers explicitly to a disproportionate fear of vomiting. While a mild fear of vomiting is common, emetophobia is rarer, estimated to affect roughly 0.1% of the population, with women being four times more likely to experience it. Those with emetophobia may fear choking on vomit, being hospitalized for vomiting, or vomiting and being unable to stop. They often have an aversion to words like puke, barf, or throw up and may look away from vomiting scenes in films and television shows. The topic of vomiting may be enough to induce panic in someone with this phobia. 

Those who experience this condition may experience anxiety when they hear that they have encountered someone who has recently had a stomach virus. They may be hypersensitive to the slightest sign of illness in themselves, afraid that it could cause them to vomit. Unless they have no choice, they might avoid leaving the house for fear of contracting germs. They may avoid shaking hands with people and being near any unclean or malodorous items that could incite nausea. They may throw away food long before its expiration date or overcook food out of fear of bacteria that could cause vomiting. 

Emetophobia is sometimes associated with other fears, such as a fear of food, eating, or encountering partially eaten food. People with emetophobia may avoid trying new foods for fear of succumbing to food poisoning that may lead to vomiting. Similarly, they may avoid overindulging in alcohol out of fear of vomiting while drunk. In some cases, the fear is so extreme that the individual will forego getting pregnant out of fear of experiencing morning sickness or taking necessary medications because nausea and vomiting are common side effects. 

Emetophobia causes and comorbidities 

Emetophobia is often caused by a negative experience with vomiting, often at a young age. For instance, a stomach virus leading to a long night of violent, uncontrollable vomiting may be a cause, as might an unexpected instance of vomiting in public. Sometimes emetophobia can also spontaneously occur for no known reason.

Some experts believe that emetophobia is tied to a fear of losing control. Vomiting may be difficult or, at times, impossible to control. It can happen at inconvenient times and in potentially embarrassing locations, which can cause high levels of distress to those experiencing it. People with emetophobia may find their condition leads to additional fears or obsessions over time. Some people develop cibophobia, which is the fear of food. 

In addition to its potential association with other phobias, comorbidities may include obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) associated with germ avoidance compulsions, such as excessive hand washing or cleaning. Emetophobia may also accompany generalized anxiety disorder, depression, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and hypochondriasis. 

Getty/AnnaStills

Symptoms and behavior

One of the most common symptoms of emetophobia is frequent episodes of nausea and indigestion. These episodes may result from eating a restricted diet or refraining from eating at all or from digestive issues resulting from extreme stress associated with the fear of vomiting. 

Individuals with this condition may worry that their food has not been cooked long enough or properly stored, which could cause them to get sick. Others may limit the types of food they eat, sticking to what is "safe" (i.e., foods they don't associate with vomiting) or refusing to eat enough to fill their stomachs because they believe overeating might lead to nausea and vomiting. 

Those with emetophobia may adjust their behavior or develop obsessions that keep them "safe." For example, some people may experience more emotional comfort in a particular room in their home or sleep with a towel or bowl next to them every night, just in case they wake up to vomit.  

Some individuals with this phobia could be reluctant to leave home entirely for fear they might end up in a place or situation where they may witness vomiting or are unable to make it to the bathroom in time. Others may get distressed upon entering an unfamiliar building because they don't know where the restroom is in the event of an emergency. They may also be afraid of seeing another person vomit. 

Children with emetophobia may fear attending school or socializing at others' homes. Adults might miss work or avoid eating with friends and family. Riding in a car, boat, or airplane can also cause anxiety for those with emetophobia because they fear they or someone around them will experience motion sickness resulting in vomiting.

Can emetophobia be treated? 

Emetophobia is often treatable with exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP), cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR). Some doctors may prescribe anti-anxiety medications in conjunction with psychotherapy. 

Forms of psychotherapy for emetophobia often aim to uncover the source of the phobia and examine the details associated with those circumstances. Because psychotherapy requires honesty and a willingness to explore personal topics, it can be difficult, particularly if the suspected source is related to a traumatic event or maltreatment in childhood. However, with time and regular treatments, the client may gain an increased ability to cope and reduce symptom severity.  

Studies on emetophobia treatment 

A study published in 2017 showed the results of a randomized controlled trial that assessed cognitive-behavioral therapy for emetophobia. The study's authors found that more than half of the participants receiving CBT reported improvement in their condition compared to 16% of participants who didn't receive CBT. Participants who received CBT treatment reported a reduction in distress.

Part of CBT treatment includes reframing a client's thought patterns around the challenges that cause discomfort or difficulty. With emetophobia, this process may consist of exploring how vomiting may naturally benefit the body. For example, vomiting is the body's natural way of purging food or items that could cause illness. 

While the act may be unpleasant, people often report feeling significantly better after they vomit. Often, whatever is causing a person to vomit is purged from the person's system within 24 hours. To someone experiencing emetophobia, this timeframe may seem like a lifetime. However, the purpose of therapy is to help the client gradually put these ideas into perspective. 

Effective treatment for phobias often requires professional help

Alternative support options 

Emetophobia can be a complex phobia to diagnose and treat because of the other phobias and anxiety disorders that can develop in conjunction with it. Therefore, it can be essential for those experiencing it to seek help from an experienced professional. However, some people may face difficulty receiving support due to their symptoms. Conditions like emetophobia may cause an aversion to leaving home or meeting a therapist in person. People with phobias may also worry about the stigma that some associate with the condition. 

Online therapy on platforms like BetterHelp can provide a solution to these barriers to treatment. With an online platform, you can speak with a licensed mental health professional experienced in using techniques like CBT that help clients with phobias, anxiety, depression, trauma-related disorders, and other conditions. You may attend sessions from the comfort of your home on a schedule that's convenient for you. 

The rise in virtual therapy has also given rise to several studies comparing online treatment with traditional treatment. The research indicates that psychotherapy is as effective online as in-person for treating phobias and co-occurring conditions. Additionally, some find online therapy more affordable. 

Takeaway

You're not alone if you're living with emetophobia or a fear of vomiting. This condition has been proven treatable with methods like CBT and ERP therapy. Consider reaching out to a licensed therapist to get started.

It is possible to overcome phobias

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
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