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What Happens if OCD Goes Untreated?

By April 12, 2018November 19th, 2020Dr. Jenny Yip, OCD

Some people with mild to moderate OCD symptoms learn to live with the inconveniences of their obsessive thought patterns or compulsive actions. They may even rationalize their repetitive behaviors as “not that bad”, since they haven’t started interfering with work or school. However, left untreated, OCD symptoms often become worse over the years. They can even become so debilitating that the sufferer experiences:

  • Isolation
  • Academic failure
  • Loss of focus at work
  • Loss of sleep
  • Physical exhaustion
  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Depression
  • Panic attacks
  • Thoughts of suicide

According to the DSM-5, only about 20% of sufferers will become cured on their own. Early onset in adolescence has a 60% chance of becoming a lifelong disease if left untreated. Usually, OCD symptoms will wax and wane over the course of one’s life, but will still be classified as chronic.
Secondary Issues
OCD sufferers have also known to display secondary harmful behaviors such as hoarding, hair pulling, skin picking, anorexia, or bulimia. These behaviors can cause irreparable damage to the body if left untreated. Sometimes these behaviors are connected to some form of anxiety as well, so it’s important for a licensed physician to rule it out before attributing the behavior to OCD alone. Generally, OCD behaviors are accompanied by dysfunctional beliefs. For instance, a person with OCD may pick at their skin because it doesn’t “feel right”, or excessively wash hands in fear of contamination. If OCD symptoms are limited to only one area, like body issues, then it’s possible the individual is suffering from that specific disorder, and not necessarily OCD.
To help cope with the stresses of OCD, some people will abuse drugs or alcohol and develop a dependency on these substances. This can lead to a whole host of secondary issues, such as liver failure, neurological problems, and even death. In extreme cases, OCD sufferers may think about or attempt suicide to end their symptoms.
Best Time to Seek Help
The best time to seek help for OCD is before the symptoms start interfering with one’s everyday life. It’s easiest to employ non-invasive treatments, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapy, when symptoms are milder and there are no other mental health issues present. However, if symptoms are extreme, physicians can prescribe medications that help balance the serotonin levels in the brain while the patient practices their cognitive behavioral therapy as well. Deep brain stimulation can also be helpful for people who have severe OCD.
If co-occurring disorders are also present with the OCD symptoms, a physician may want to help the patient find the root cause, if one is present. For instance, a traumatic event could have caused OCD symptoms along with major depression or anxiety. Finding the root cause may help the individual solve the issues quicker than tackling each on their own.  
OCD and Age
It’s important to keep in mind that some OCD behaviors are normal for certain developmental stages. Throwing a tantrum if objects aren’t lined up perfectly is normal for a toddler, but not necessarily for an adult. If you think the behavior is abnormal for the developmental stage, it’s important to seek help before it starts severely interfering with everyday life. According to the DSM-5, males tend to develop OCD symptoms earlier in life, but more females suffer overall.