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Pharmacophobia (phobia of drugs): symptoms, causes and treatment

Pharmacophobia (phobia of drugs): symptoms, causes and treatment

June 14, 2024

We all know some case of someone who does not like to take drugs. People who do not go to Paracetamol when their head hurts, who refuse to use antibiotics even if they have an infection in the throat. We also know or have heard of people who refuse to vaccinate themselves or their children (sometimes with dramatic consequences).

In almost all of these cases we are facing a personal choice, based on the beliefs of these people. But there are people who avoid drug use not because of ideology, but because of the presence of a high level of anxiety and discomfort in the form of a phobia. We are talking about pharmacofobia .

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What is pharmacophobia?

It is known by the name of pharmacophobia to one of the multiple specific phobias that exist, which is characterized by the presence of an irrational and uncontrollable fear towards the consumption and the application of any type of drug . The exposure to this stimulus supposes a very high level of anxiety for the subject, generating different physiological symptoms and the need to avoid approaching both drugs and any situations in which they may appear with it. The subject himself usually recognizes that his reaction is excessive, but he needs to flee and avoid exposure or, in cases where it is essential, he will endure it with a very high level of discomfort.

Although symptoms may vary depending on the case, it is usually common appearance of tachycardia, hyperventilation, cold and profuse sweating, tremors and gastrointestinal discomfort which can lead to nausea and vomiting at the mere idea of ​​seeing a drug or prescribing medication. Fainting and even the appearance of anxiety crises are also likely.

This phobia supposes a fear to the group of the drugs, being able to appear the avoidance as much of the oral taking of medication as of injections, vaccines or other routes of administration as inhaled or aspired. Also, before the consumption of a drug the fear of this can get to cause that the subject is provoked the vomit in order to expel it. While fear is specific to medication, sometimes can lead to avoidance of contexts in which these are frequent, such as hospitals , or the reduction or avoidance of contact with people who need to take them, such as the elderly and the chronically ill. That is why it is an important limitation, in addition to having a series of serious consequences.

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A phobia with deadly potential

Most specific phobias can generate a series of variable repercussions in the life of the person who suffers them. These consequences are based on the behaviors that the subjects carry out or the situations or stimuli that they avoid, being able to limit their life to a lesser or greater degree. But generally, except those phobias referring to specially prevalent stimuli, it is one of the types of psychological problems that generates less interference.

In the case at hand, the consequences can be much more serious, directly affecting the health and survival of the patient and being able in extreme cases to generate disability or even death of the patient. And is that the fear and avoidance of drugs can have serious repercussions in patients who need them, as in the case of coagulation problems, heart disease, respiratory problems, diabetes mellitus type 1 (insulin-dependent), HIV ...

This fact makes the treatment of this type of phobias essential, especially in the population with chronic diseases and / or with the potential to kill.

The causes of this phobia

The reasons that can generate this type of phobia are multiple, and there is no proven etiology.

A possible explanation is found in conditioning through traumatic consequences , existing the fear to feel damage or suffering or to be intoxicated. This is linked to the experience of professional malpractice or deep pains or discomforts associated with any previous treatment in the patient's life, which have been generalized to any stimulation linked to drugs.

Someone who has been close to drowning trying to swallow a pill, or a high level of suffering / discomfort with the consumption of some substance or after an injection (for example, before the administration of chemotherapy) could develop this phobia.

How to treat pharmacofobia?

The treatment of pharmacofobia is something necessary and that may have some urgency, depending on the patient's state of health.Fortunately, phobias are the group of disorders that have a better prognosis and greater therapeutic success.

In order to treat pharmacofobia, as with other phobias, the treatment of choice goes through exposure therapy or systematic desensitization . Live exposure is especially recommended, although imagination exposure can be used as a previous step.

During this therapy, a hierarchy of items will be developed between patient and professional (Some examples could be to see a pill, manipulate it, take it, go to a pharmacy or hospital, see another person take some type of drug ...), structuring the situation to a large extent (presence or not of other people, place, number of drugs involved ...) ordered according to the level of anxiety caused to the patient, to subsequently and gradually expose themselves to these situations. The subject must remain on each item until the level of anxiety drops or is imperceptible in at least two consecutive attempts before being able to move on to the next.

Cash has also been observed work on cognitions and emotions linked to pharmacology , investigating what a drug is for the subject and working and restructuring possible dysfunctional beliefs about it.

Although in the treatment of phobias drugs are sometimes used to reduce the level of anxiety (such as benzodiazepines) and make a possible exposure more bearable in extreme cases, in the case we are dealing with this treatment would be in itself the phobic stimulus, something that will greatly hinder its application. Thus, the supply of tranquilizing drugs will be hardly viable, not being an optimal therapeutic option at least initially. In spite of this, this could be used to condition a response contrary to that of the phobia, and could be considered as a possible element to be included in a hierarchy of exposure.

The use of relaxation techniques can also be effective in reducing the discomfort and anxiety associated with this phobia, an example being diaphragmatic breathing or Jacobson's progressive muscle relaxation.

Bibliographic references:

  • Bulbena, A., Guimón, J. and Berrios, G. (1993). Measurement in Psychiatry. Barcelona: Salvat.
  • Jaspers, K. (1946/1993). General Psychopathology. Mexico: FCE.
  • Lemos, S. (2000): General Psychopathology. Madrid: Synthesis.


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