Pharmacophobia (drug phobia): symptoms, causes and treatment

We all know the case of someone who doesn’t like to take drugs. People who do not take paracetamol when they have a headache, who are reluctant to use antibiotics even if they have a throat infection. We also know or have heard of people who refuse to be vaccinated or to vaccinate their children (sometimes with dramatic consequences).

In almost all of these cases, we are faced with 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 phobia. We talk about pharmacophobia.

    What is pharmacophobia?

    One of the many specific phobias that exist is known as pharmacophobia, which is characterized by the presence of an irrational and uncontrollable fear towards the consumption and application of any type of drug. Exposure to this stimulus is a very high level of anxiety for the subject, generating different physiological symptoms and the need to avoid approaching both the drugs and any situation in which they may appear with him. The subject himself usually recognizes that his reaction is overreacting, but must flee and avoid exposure or, in cases where it is essential, endured it with a very high level of discomfort.

    Although symptoms may vary from case to case, it is usually common onset of tachycardia, hyperventilation, cold and profuse sweating, tremors and gastrointestinal disturbances which can cause nausea and vomiting at the thought of seeing or prescribing medication. Fainting and even the onset of anxiety attacks are also likely.

    This phobia involves a fear of all medications and may appear to avoid both oral medications and injections, vaccines, or other routes of administration such as inhalation or aspiration. In addition, when consuming a drug, fear of it can cause the subject to vomit in order to expel it. While fear is sometimes drug specific this can lead to avoiding contexts in which these are common, such as hospitals, Or reduce or avoid contact with those who need it, such as the elderly and the chronically ill. This is why it is an important limitation, in addition to being able to have a number of serious consequences.

      A deadly phobia

      Most specific phobias can have a number of varying impacts on the life of the person who suffers from them. These consequences are based on the behaviors that the subjects lead or on the situations or stimuli that they avoid, which can limit their life to a greater or lesser extent. But generally, with the exception of phobias referring to particularly prevalent stimuli, it is one of the types of psychological problems that causes the least interference.

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

      This fact makes the treatment of this type of phobia essential, especially in the population suffering from chronic diseases and / or having the potential to kill.

      The causes of this phobia

      The reasons that can lead to this type of phobia are numerous, there is no proven etiology.

      A possible explanation is in conditioning by traumatic consequences, There is a fear of feeling hurt, in pain or being intoxicated. This is related to the experience of malpractice or deep pain or discomfort associated with previous treatment in the patient’s life, which has been generalized to any drug-related stimulation.

      A person who has nearly drowned while trying to swallow a pill, or a high level of pain / discomfort from using a substance or after an injection (for example, following chemotherapy) may develop this phobia.

      How to treat pharmacophobia?

      Treatment of pharmacophobia is a necessary thing and that it may be of some urgency, depending on the patient’s state of health. Fortunately, phobias are the group of disorders that generally have the best prognosis and the greatest treatment success.

      In order to treat pharmacophobia, as with other phobias, the treatment of choice it goes through exposure therapy or systematic desensitization. Live exposure is particularly recommended, although imaginative exposure can be used as a prelude.

      During this therapy, a hierarchy of elements will be established between the patient and the professional (Some examples can be seeing a pill, handling it, taking it, going to a pharmacy or a hospital, seeing another person taking some kind of medicine …), largely structuring the situation (presence or absence of others people, place, number of drugs involved …) ordered according to the level of anxiety they cause in the patient, to be exposed later and gradually to these situations. The subject must stay in each element until the anxiety level drops or is imperceptible on at least two consecutive attempts before they can move on to the next.

      Cash has also been observed work on cognitions and emotions linked to pharmacology, Study what a drug is for the subject and work on and restructure any dysfunctional beliefs in this regard.

      While in the treatment of phobias drugs are sometimes used to lower the level of anxiety (such as benzodiazepines) and make a possible exposure more bearable in extreme cases, in the case in question this treatment would in itself be the stimulus. phobic, which hamper its application. Thus, the provision of tranquilizers will be difficult to achieve and is not an optimal therapeutic option at least initially. However, this could be used to condition a response contrary to that of the phobia, and may be raised as a possible item to be included in a hierarchy of exposure.

      The use of relaxation techniques may also be effective in reducing the discomfort and anxiety associated with this phobia, as illustrated by diaphragmatic breathing or Jacobson’s progressive muscle relaxation.

      Bibliographical references:

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

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