Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a type of mental illness that
causes repeated unwanted thoughts. To get rid of the thoughts, a person with OCD does
the same tasks over and over. For example, you may fear that everything you
touch has germs on it. So to ease that fear, you wash your hands over and over
What causes OCD?
Experts don't know the exact
cause of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Research suggests that there may be a
problem with the way one part of the brain sends information to another part.
Not having enough of a brain chemical called serotonin may help cause the
obsessive-compulsive disorder tend to come and go over time and range from mild
Anxiety is the most common symptom. For example, you
may have an overall sense that something terrible will happen if you don't do a
certain task, such as check again and again to see if the stove is on. If
you fail to check, you may suddenly feel tense or anxious or have a nagging
sense that you left something undone.
Symptoms of the disorder
Obsessions. These are
unwanted thoughts, ideas, and impulses that you have again and again. They
won't go away. They get in the way of your normal thoughts and cause anxiety or
fear. The thoughts may be sexual or violent, or they may make you worry about
illness or infection. Examples include:
A fear of harm to yourself or a loved
A driving need to do things perfectly or
A fear of getting dirty or infected.
Compulsions. These are
behaviors that you repeat to try to control the obsessions. Some people have
behaviors that are rigid and structured, while others have very complex
behaviors that change. Examples include:
Washing, or checking that something has
Counting, often while doing another compulsive action,
such as hand-washing.
Repeating things or always moving items to
keep them in perfect order.
The obsessions or compulsions usually take up a lot of
time—more than 1 hour a day. They greatly interfere with your normal routine at
work or school, and they affect social activities and relationships.
Sometimes people may understand that their obsessions and compulsions
aren't real. But at other times they may not be sure, or they may believe
strongly in their fears.
How is OCD diagnosed?
Your doctor can check for
obsessive-compulsive disorder by asking about your symptoms and your past
health. He or she may also do a physical exam. It's important to talk to your
doctor if you think you have OCD. Many people with the disorder go without
treatment, because they are afraid or embarrassed to talk to a doctor.
How is it treated?
Treatment includes medicines
and counseling. Using both tends to works best.
medicines called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are most
commonly used. Examples of these medicines include Prozac and Zoloft. You may
begin to feel better in about 1 to 3 weeks after you start taking medicine. But
it can take as long as 12 weeks to see more improvement. If you have concerns
about your medicine, or if you do not start to feel better by 3 weeks, talk to
your doctor. He or she may increase the dose or change to a different medicine.
Counseling for the disorder includes a type of
cognitive-behavioral therapy called exposure and
response prevention. This therapy slowly increases your contact with the thing
that causes worries or false beliefs. With
the help of a counselor, this therapy can reduce your symptoms over
Other cognitive therapy may also help change the false
beliefs that lead to OCD behaviors.
Treatment can make your
symptoms less severe. But you may still have some mild symptoms after you begin
Frequently Asked Questions
Learning about obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD):
Researchers have yet to pinpoint the
exact cause of
obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), but brain
abnormalities, genetic (family) influences, and environmental factors are being
studied. Brain scans of people with OCD have shown that they have different
patterns of brain activity than people without OCD and that abnormal
functioning of circuitry within a certain part of the brain (striatum) may
cause the disorder. Abnormalities in other parts of the brain and an imbalance
of brain chemicals, especially serotonin, may also contribute to OCD.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a chronic or long-term illness. Without treatment,
symptoms typically come and go over time and may significantly interfere with
your ability to work and have a family. Treatment can reduce the severity of
the illness. And although some symptoms may linger after treatment, you should
be able to have an active social life, raise a family, and work.
Anxiety is the most prominent symptom of OCD. For example, you may have
an overall sense that something terrible will happen if you don't follow
through with a particular ritual, such as repeatedly checking to see whether
the stove is on. If you don't perform the ritual, you may have immediate
anxiety or a nagging sense of incompleteness.
Symptoms of OCD
vary with each person and include the following:
Fear of dirt or germs or overconcern about
body smells/secretions or the proper functioning of the
Overconcern with order, neatness, and
Fear of thinking bad thoughts or doing something
Constantly thinking of certain sounds, words, or
numbers, or a preoccupation with counting or checking
for approval or the need to apologize
Fear that something terrible
will happen or fear of harming yourself or someone else
Frequently washing hands, showering, or
brushing teeth or overusing items to hide body
Constantly cleaning, straightening, and ordering certain
Repeatedly checking zippers and buttons on
Checking lights, appliances, or doors again and again to
be sure they are turned off or closed
Repeating certain physical
activities, such as sitting down and getting up from a
Hoarding objects, such as newspapers
same question or saying the same thing over and over
public places or taking extreme measures to prevent harm to yourself or
Religious rituals, such as constant silent praying
It is common for children with OCD to need to repeat
actions until they feel "just right," such as going back and forth through a
door, going up and down stairs, touching things with their right hand and then
their left (symmetrical touch), or rereading or rewriting school
assignments. Children with OCD may not want to go to
school or may be afraid to leave someone they trust.
obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), you develop
disturbing, obsessive thoughts that cause fear or anxiety. In order to rid
yourself of these thoughts and relieve the fear, you perform rituals, such as
repeated hand-washing or checking that something has been done. Unfortunately,
the relief is only temporary. The thoughts return and you repeat the
The rituals or behaviors become time-consuming and have a
significant impact on your daily life. If your particular fear involves
unfamiliar situations, it is possible for you to become so obsessed by the
fears that you stop going outside of your home. Quality of life can be
substantially lowered by OCD since it can greatly affect your ability to work
and have relationships.
Many people are too embarrassed by their
symptoms to seek treatment, and they go for years before seeing a doctor.
Symptoms of OCD can be reduced with treatment.
OCD can have a
negative effect on those who care about you. Family members can become angry
and frustrated at the strain the rituals or behaviors put on them. Talk to your
doctor about ways your
family members can help with OCD.
What Increases Your Risk
If you have a parent or
obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), your chance of
developing OCD is increased.1
for developing OCD is greatest from childhood to middle adulthood. The average age of diagnosis is 19.1
When To Call a Doctor
Call 911, the national suicide hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255), or other emergency services right away if:
You or someone you know is thinking seriously of committing suicide or has recently tried to commit suicide. Serious signs include these thoughts:
You have decided on how to kill yourself, such as with a weapon or medicines.
You have set a time and place to do it.
You think there is no other way to solve the problem or end the pain.
You feel you cannot stop from hurting yourself or someone else.
Call a doctor right away if:
You hear voices.
You have been thinking about death or suicide a lot, but you do not have a plan to commit suicide.
You are worried that your feelings of depression or thoughts of suicide are not going away.
Seek care soon if:
You have symptoms of depression, such as:
Feeling sad or hopeless.
Not enjoying anything.
Having trouble with sleep.
Feeling anxious or worried.
You have been treated for depression for more than 3 weeks, but you are not getting better.
Who to see
Although there are many health professionals who can
treat or monitor obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), you may want to partner
with a health professional who has had specific training in OCD management.
Health professionals who can diagnose, treat, or monitor the progress of OCD
A diagnosis of
obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is based on your
symptoms, medical history, and a physical exam. Your doctor may also
mental health assessment, which is an evaluation of
your emotional functioning and your ability to think, reason, and remember
(cognitive functioning). A mental health assessment may include an examination
nervous system, written or verbal tests, and
laboratory tests (such as blood and urine tests) as well as a review of your
appearance, mood, behavior, thinking, reasoning, memory, and ability to express
Many people with OCD live with the condition for years
before being diagnosed. Or they go without treatment because they are afraid or
embarrassed to talk about their symptoms. Ask yourself these questions:
Do you have repeated thoughts that cause
anxiety and that you cannot get rid of no matter how hard you
Do you wash your hands frequently or keep things extremely
clean and neat?
Do you excessively check things?
If your doctor suspects that you have OCD, he or
she will look for a full range of symptoms that will confirm the diagnosis,
Recurrent and persistent thoughts, impulses, or
images that are intrusive and inappropriate, cause anxiety or distress, and are
not simply excessive worries about real-life issues.
suppress or ignore the thoughts or get rid of them with other thoughts or
A recognition that the obsessions are created in your own
mind and don't make sense.
Repetitive behaviors, such as
hand-washing, ordering, praying, or checking that you're driven to do in
response to the obsession. The behaviors are aimed at preventing or reducing
distress or preventing a dreaded event.
For a diagnosis of OCD, the obsessions or compulsions must
be time-consuming (more than 1 hour a day) or greatly interfere with your
normal routine at work or school and affect social activities and
Early detection and proper treatment is very
important in improving the course of OCD. This disorder is often a long-lasting
(chronic) condition that will need to be monitored throughout your life.
The earlier you seek treatment for
obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), the better. Early
treatment of OCD can reduce symptoms and reduce the disruption the illness can
create in your life. Unfortunately, most people see several health professionals and spend years seeking
treatment for OCD before they are correctly diagnosed. Their diagnoses are complicated by their being embarrassed or
secretive about their symptoms and by other conditions they may have along with
OCD, such as depression.
Treatment includes a combination of
professional counseling and medicines.
Depending on the severity of
your symptoms, your doctor may prescribe only counseling or counseling and an
antidepressant, such as fluoxetine (for example,
Prozac), fluvoxamine (Luvox), or sertraline (Zoloft).
A type of
cognitive-behavioral therapy called
exposure and response prevention is considered the
most effective type of counseling for
OCD. With exposure and
response prevention therapy, you repeatedly expose yourself to an obsession,
such as something you fear is contaminated, and deny yourself the ritual
compulsive act, which in this case would be washing your hands. This therapy is
done with a therapist or on your own with direction from your therapist.
In the beginning of exposure and response prevention therapy, your
therapist may ask you to write a list of your obsessions, rituals
(compulsions), and things that you avoid and then have you rank the amount of
anxiety each of the obsessions causes from highest to lowest. You might begin
exposing yourself to an obsession that causes a moderate amount of anxiety and
then work your way up the list to the obsession that causes the most
Therapists often combine exposure and response prevention
therapy with cognitive-behavioral therapy to help overcome the faulty beliefs
(such as fear of contamination) that lead to OCD behaviors.
Your doctor may first prescribe an antidepressant called
a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), such as fluoxetine (for
example, Prozac), or a tricyclic antidepressant, such as clomipramine. You may
start to feel better within 1 to 3 weeks after you start taking an SSRI. But it can take as
many as 12 weeks to see more improvement. If you have questions or concerns
about your medicines, or if you do not notice any improvement by 3 weeks, talk
to your doctor. Your doctor may increase the dosage of your medicine or change
to another SSRI if the first medicine prescribed doesn't help.
Ongoing treatment for
OCD includes monitoring the dosage and effectiveness
of your medicines. Your doctor may want you to stay on one medicine for at
least 10 to 12 weeks before trying a different antidepressant. Although
antidepressants are considered the most effective medicine for OCD, researchers
are studying whether other medicines can be
combined with antidepressants for better results.
If you are in
counseling, your doctor will monitor your progress and, if necessary, modify
the amount or type of counseling you're receiving. Between 13 and 20 sessions may be needed to relieve symptoms. Your doctor may also advise family members to participate in therapy with you
or on their own.
Treatment if the condition gets worse
stimulation, which uses surgically implanted electrodes in the brain, and
magnetic stimulation of parts of the brain may be tried in rare cases of
OCD when other treatment has not been
What to think about
Consistency is important for
both counseling and medicines. People who don't take their medicines regularly
or stop altogether often have their symptoms return (relapse). With
therapy, it is important to work with your doctor to find out when, or if, you
You cannot prevent
obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) from starting. But
the best way to prevent a relapse of OCD symptoms is by staying with your
therapy and taking any medicines exactly as they have been prescribed.
Taking care of yourself every day is
important in dealing with
obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). This includes
taking your medicines as directed every day and doing the homework your
therapist gives you to do at home, such as self-directed exposure and response
prevention exercises. With exposure and response prevention therapy, you
repeatedly expose yourself to an obsession, such as something you fear is
contaminated, and deny yourself the ritual compulsive act, which in this case
would be washing your hands.
It's also important to involve family
members and loved ones in your treatment, especially if your doctor suggested that you participate in therapy together. Keeping lines of
communication open may help you deal with relationships that have become
strained during your illness.
Reducing overall stress in your
life, although not proven treatment for OCD symptoms, may help you cope.
Tips to relieve stress and anxiety include:
Taking slow, deep breaths.
in a warm bath.
Listening to soothing music.
walk or doing some other exercise.
Taking a yoga
Having a massage or back rub.
Drinking a warm,
nonalcoholic, noncaffeinated beverage.
Eating a healthy, balanced diet and avoiding certain foods
or drinks may also help you reduce stress.
Avoid or limit caffeine. Coffee, tea, some soda
pop, and chocolate contain caffeine. Caffeine can make stressful situations
seem more intense. If you drink a lot of caffeine, reduce the amount gradually.
Stopping use of caffeine suddenly can cause headaches and make it hard to
If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. If you
are feeling very stressed, you might be turning to alcohol for relief more
often than you realize. If you drink, limit yourself to 2 drinks a day for men
and 1 drink a day for women.
Make mealtimes calm and relaxed. Try not to skip
meals or eat on the run. Skipping meals can cause your blood sugar to drop,
which will make other stress-related symptoms worse, such as headaches or
stomach tension. Eating on the run can cause indigestion. Use mealtime to
relax, enjoy the flavor of your meal, and reflect on your day.
Avoid eating to relieve stress. Some people turn to
food to comfort themselves when they are under stress. This can lead to
overeating and guilt. If this is a problem for you, try to replace eating with
other actions that relieve stress, like taking a walk, playing with a pet, or
taking a bath.
After you are diagnosed with
obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), your doctor will
likely prescribe antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake
inhibitors (SSRIs), such as fluoxetine (for example, Prozac). Antidepressants
are thought to help balance
neurotransmitters (such as serotonin) in your
In some cases it takes time to adjust the dosage or find
the right medicine that will work for you. You may start to feel better within
1 to 3 weeks after you start taking an SSRI. But it can take as many as 12 weeks to see more
improvement. If you have questions or concerns about your medicines, or if you
do not notice any improvement by 3 weeks, talk to your doctor. Your doctor may
increase the dosage of your medicine, change to another SSRI, or use another
medicine known as clomipramine if the medicine first prescribed doesn't help.
Clomipramine, a tricyclic antidepressant, has been used for years to treat OCD,
but it may have more side effects than SSRIs.
Your doctor may
prescribe other medicines if you have other conditions along with OCD.
Antidepressants (SSRIs) such as fluoxetine (for
example, Prozac), fluvoxamine (Luvox), and sertraline (Zoloft) are commonly
prescribed to treat OCD. These medicines are taken as tablets or capsules. The
medicine venlafaxine can also help symptoms of OCD. The tricyclic
antidepressant clomipramine (Anafranil) is sometimes used as well.
Antidepressants are used to relieve the obsessive thoughts and subsequent
compulsive behaviors in those who have OCD. By increasing the level of
serotonin in the brain, antidepressants help to regulate the communication
between different parts of the brain.
A person with OCD may also have
other anxiety disorders that complicate treatment and require using other
For children and adolescents with OCD, treatment
cognitive-behavioral therapy with antidepressants
(SSRIs), such as sertraline, works better than only taking medicine.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy alone also works well, but it works better if it
is combined with medicine.
Other Places To Get Help
Anxiety Disorders Association of America
8730 Georgia Avenue
Silver Spring, MD 20910
The Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA)
works to improve the lives of people who have anxiety disorders. Members of the
association are not only people who have or are interested in anxiety disorders
but also health professionals who do research and treat people who have anxiety
KidsHealth for Parents, Children, and
Nemours Home Office
10140 Centurion Parkway
Jacksonville, FL 32256
This website is sponsored by the Nemours Foundation. It
has a wide range of information about children's health—from allergies and
diseases to normal growth and development (birth to adolescence). This website
offers separate areas for kids, teens, and parents, each providing
age-appropriate information that the child or parent can understand. You can
sign up to get weekly emails about your area of interest.
Mental Health America
2000 North Beauregard Street, 6th Floor
Alexandria, VA 22311
1-800-969-NMHA (1-800-969-6642) referral service for help with depression (703) 684-7722
Mental Health America (formerly known as the National
Mental Health Association) is a nonprofit agency devoted to helping people of
all ages live mentally healthier lives. Its website has information about
mental health conditions. It also addresses issues such as grief, stress,
bullying, and more. It includes a confidential depression screening test for
anyone who would like to take it. The short test may help you decide whether
your symptoms are related to depression.
National Institute of Mental Health
6001 Executive Boulevard
Bethesda, MD 20892-9663
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) provides
information to help people better understand mental health, mental disorders,
and behavioral problems. NIMH does not provide referrals to mental health
professionals or treatment for mental health problems.
National Institute of Mental Health (2012). Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Among Adults. Available online: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/statistics/1OCD_ADULT.shtml.
Other Works Consulted
American Psychiatric Association (2007). Practice Guideline for the Treatment of Patients With Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association. Available online: http://www.psych.org/psych_pract/treatg/pg/prac_guide.cfm.
Eisendrath SJ, Lichtmacher JE (2012). Psychiatric disorders. In SJ McPhee, MA Papadakis, eds., 2012 Current Medical Diagnosis and Treatment, 51st ed., pp. 1010–1064. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Reus VI (2012). Mental disorders. In DL Longo et al., eds., Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 18th ed., vol. 2, pp. 3529–3545. New York: McGraw-Hill.
National Institute of Mental Health (2012). Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Among Adults. Available online: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/statistics/1OCD_ADULT.shtml.
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.