Sudden onset obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) may result from infections such as Lyme disease, mononucleosis, mycoplasma, and influenza.

OCD is a chronic mental health condition. People with OCD experience uncontrollable, recurring thoughts (obsessions) and behaviors (compulsions) that they feel compelled to repeat over and over. These behaviors can significantly interfere with daily activities and cause distress.

OCD typically develops gradually in children or young adults. However, in rare situations, people can experience a sudden onset of symptoms. Experts believe it could relate to an immune system response to an infection such as Lyme disease, mononucleosis, or flu.

Continue reading to learn more about the causes and symptoms of OCD and how this condition may develop suddenly.

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While OCD usually develops over time, there are instances where individuals can experience a sudden occurrence of symptoms. This abrupt emergence of OCD symptoms is less common and can relate to underlying medical conditions.

For example, pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders associated with streptococcal infections (PANDAS) is a well-documented syndrome where children exhibit a sudden, dramatic onset of OCD symptoms following a strep throat infection.

Similarly, pediatric acute-onset neuropsychiatric syndrome (PANS) can trigger sudden OCD behaviors in response to viral, bacterial, or other types of infections.

Common infections can sometimes lead to an autoimmune response where the immune system mistakenly targets brain tissue. It often affects the basal ganglia, the part of the brain that aids motor control and behavior. This autoimmune activity can lead to brain inflammation and the sudden presentation of mental health symptoms, including those of OCD.

Although less common, adults can also develop sudden OCD symptoms. It may have links to infections, autoimmune responses, or other neurological conditions that affect brain function.

What is OCD?

OCD is a chronic mental health condition that involves a widespread pattern of intrusive and persistent thoughts, fears, or obsessions. The thoughts compel individuals to engage in repetitive actions or rituals, known as compulsions, in an attempt to ease anxiety. However, they typically only offer temporary respite instead of providing long-term relief. They can also become consuming rituals that significantly disrupt daily activities and overall quality of life.

The disorder frequently revolves around specific themes or concerns that vary widely among individuals. Common themes include:

  • contamination and fear of germs
  • symmetry and order
  • safety and concerns about harm, danger, or catastrophic events
  • intrusive thoughts about aggression or sexual or religious subjects

People with OCD may recognize their compulsions as excessive or irrational, but they feel powerless to resist them. This cycle of obsessions and compulsions becomes a central focus of the person’s life and often negatively affects their broader social, occupational, and personal functioning.

Learn more about OCD.

Experts do not fully understand the exact causes of OCD but believe a combination of factors contribute to its development, including:

  • Genetics: OCD may have a genetic component. Individuals with first-degree relatives with the condition have a higher risk of developing the condition themselves.
  • Brain structure and functioning: People with OCD often have differences in areas of the brain involved in decision-making, learning, and the processing of information relating to fear and anxiety.
  • Behavioral theories: OCD symptoms may develop from learning maladaptive behaviors. For example, someone may discover that their anxiety temporarily eases due to a specific action, such as washing hands. They then might begin to perform this action compulsively as a coping mechanism to manage anxiety.
  • Environmental influences: Health experts consider life stressors, childhood trauma, and infections as potential triggers for OCD. This is particularly true in individuals who have a genetic predisposition to the condition.

Underlying causes

In some cases, OCD symptoms can suddenly present in individuals due to infections that trigger autoimmune responses.

Infections known to trigger such responses include:

Autoimmune reactions occur when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks its own brain tissue. This leads to inflammation and neurological or psychiatric symptoms that mimic those observable in mental disorders.

Research shows that individuals with OCD have 32% higher levels of brain inflammation in comparison to those without OCD.

OCD can affect anyone, but it often begins in adolescence or early adulthood. The average age of onset is 19.5 years.

Estimates suggest that 2.3% of adults in the United States experience OCD during their lifetime. It affects females more than three times as often as males.

Some people may have a genetic predisposition that increases their risk, indicating that family history can play a significant role.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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OCD symptoms can vary widely between individuals but comprise intrusive, unwanted thoughts that cause significant anxiety and compulsive behaviors. These may include:

  • repetitive cleaning or handwashing
  • arranging objects in a specific way
  • checking switches, locks, appliances, or other items repeatedly
  • hoarding or collecting things
  • repeating words, phrases, or numbers either aloud or in their head
  • avoiding situations that trigger symptoms
  • asking for reassurance

People experiencing symptoms of OCD need to consider talking with a doctor. If they already have an OCD diagnosis, they can check in with their doctor if the frequency or intensity of the obsessions or compulsions escalates.

In cases where compulsive behaviors could lead to self-harm or physical damage, it is particularly important to seek prompt medical attention.

Early intervention is crucial for the effective management of OCD and can enhance the overall outcome and a person’s quality of life.

Diagnosing OCD involves a comprehensive evaluation by a mental health professional. This typically includes discussing symptoms, thoughts, feelings, and behavior patterns.

Doctors may use an OCD screening tool, such as the Yale-Brown Obsessive-Compulsive Scale. This scale goes from 0 to 40 and requires the individual to answer questions about their symptoms, thoughts, and feelings.

The person may also require other tests and assessments to rule out other possible causes for their symptoms.

Treatment for OCD generally includes a combination of medication and psychotherapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy, particularly exposure and response prevention, is one of the most effective types of psychotherapy for OCD.

Doctors may also prescribe medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors to help manage symptoms.

Support for individuals with OCD can include therapy and community support groups. Family support is also crucial, as family members can often help reinforce therapy techniques at home.

People can find help from the International OCD Foundation.

A person with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) experiences intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviors.

OCD generally develops gradually. However, infections and subsequent immune system reactions can trigger sudden onset symptoms.

If someone has the signs and symptoms of OCD, they need to speak with a doctor. Prompt medical intervention can significantly aid in managing symptoms and improving mental health.