Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

What is obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD?

People with obsessive-compulsive disorder have either obsessions, or compulsions, or both. The obsessions and/or compulsions are great enough to cause significant distress in their employment, schoolwork, or personal and social relationships.

What characteristics are associated with OCD?


People with obsessions are bothered by thoughts or images that continue to repeat themselves and are almost impossible to ignore. These thoughts, which are annoying, distracting, and inappropriate, tend to cause the person to have moderate to severe anxiety and other emotional discomfort. Common obsessive thoughts include themes of violence, fear of germs and/or infection, and doubts about one’s character and/or behavior. People who suffer from OCD worry excessively and often attempt to avoid or to get rid of the bothersome thoughts by trying to replace them with more pleasant thoughts or actions.


Compulsions are behaviors. These specific behaviors are in direct response to the person’s troublesome, obsessive thinking. Therefore, people engage in the compulsive behaviors in order to reduce their obsessive thoughts.

Some of the most prevalent compulsions are:

  • Repeated checking of doors, locks, electrical appliances, or light switches
  • Frequent cleaning of hands or clothes
  • Strict attempts to keep various, personal items in careful order
  • Mental activities that are repetitious, such as counting or praying

Are there genetic factors associated with OCD?

Yes, there are some genetic factors associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Research shows that people who have OCD frequently have close relatives who have a similar problem.

Does OCD affect males, females, or both?

In the United States , obsessive-compulsive disorder affects males and females in equal numbers.

At what age does OCD appear?

Males tend to experience obsessions and compulsions at an earlier age than females. OCD seems to frequently affect males somewhere between the ages of six (6) and fifteen (15). It is more common for females to be first diagnosed with OCD in late adolescence or early adulthood.

How common is OCD in our society?

It is believed that OCD affects between two to three percent (2%-3%) of the U.S. population.

How is OCD diagnosed?

Commonly, obsessive-compulsive disorder is first diagnosed when parents recognize that their young child or teenager seems preoccupied with ritualistic behaviors associated with excessive cleanliness or unusually meticulous organization, and they seek help from a mental health professional. Adults, on the other hand, may seek professional help when they realize that it is becoming difficult for them to do their job or school work because they are spending too much time with their obsessive thoughts or compulsive behaviors.

Therapists make the diagnosis of OCD by taking a careful personal history from the patient/client and any available family members, such as in the case of a young child.

How is OCD treated?

Some of the most common methods of treatment for people with obsessive-compulsive disorder are behavior therapy, prescription medication, or a combination of both. Current medications used for the treatment of OCD include Anafranil (clomipramine), Luvox (fluvoxamine), Paxil (paroxetine), and Prozac (fluoxetine). These medications can help diminish obsessive thinking and the subsequent compulsive behaviors. In severe cases, teens may need a residential OCD treatment center.

What happens to someone with OCD?

Although most people improve with adequate treatment, the condition can continue for many years.

What can people do if they need help?

If you, a friend, or a family member would like more information and you have a therapist or a physician, please discuss your concerns with that person.

Developed by John L. Miller, MD
Reviewed 7/2000

Back to the list of articles