A fear of snakes, or ophidiophobia, is a common phobia that can develop due to previous negative experiences, such as sustaining a snakebite. Watching another person’s scared reaction and internalizing it can also lead to ophidiophobia, as can not knowing enough about snakes.

Phobias can cause a range of symptoms and affect a person’s quality of life. However, treatments are available.

This article looks at the definition and prevalence of ophidiophobia, along with its causes and treatment options. It also considers whether the phobia might exist as a result of evolution.

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The medical term for a fear of snakes is ophidiophobia, which is a form of specific phobia.

A specific phobia is a type of anxiety disorder that affects approximately 3–15% of people around the world and 12.5% of people in the United States. It can cause a person to experience extremely high levels of fear and anxiety.

A 2021 study notes that ophidiophobia is one of the most common specific phobias.

Ophidiophobia vs. herpetophobia

Ophidiophobia is the term for a fear of snakes. People who have a phobia of all reptiles have herpetophobia.

The symptoms of ophidiophobia include:

  • experiencing terror, fear, or panic about snakes
  • being unable to look at a snake or a picture of one
  • changing the daily routine to avoid snakes
  • thinking a lot about snakes
  • being fearful of all snakes, including harmless ones
  • experiencing thoughts of snakes that result in strong anxiety

If a person encounters a snake, they may experience high levels of anxiety and a panic attack. According to the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS), the symptoms of a panic attack include:

A 2018 article notes that a person with ophidiophobia may experience health issues. Phobias have associations with migraine, heart problems, arthritis, and thyroid conditions. In addition, as anxiety can affect a person’s immune system, those with phobias may often feel unwell or have digestive system issues.

It is important to note that it is possible to dislike snakes without having ophidiophobia. This will usually involve:

  • feeling worried or scared when seeing snakes
  • thinking about snakes only when one is present
  • feeling unsure or unenthusiastic about being close to, or touching, a snake
  • coping with seeing snakes in enclosures in zoos
  • making no changes to daily life to avoid encountering snakes
  • disliking snakes or feeling disgusted by them

A 2021 article states that the exact causes of specific phobias are unknown. However, a person can develop ophidiophobia as a result of a previous negative experience with snakes.

People can also develop ophidiophobia when they witness another person’s negative reaction to snakes and internalize it.

A 2019 study examined the reaction of children to common fears. The authors suggest two methods that can result in a person developing a phobia. These include:

  • Verbal information: A person acquires the fear through social media or warnings from caregivers or trusted adults, such as teachers.
  • Social learning: This may include hearing about other people’s experiences or seeing a family member or caregiver respond fearfully to a situation. This experience may particularly influence early learning about fear for young children.

Specific phobias typically appear early in life and can continue for years or even decades.

Some experts theorize that people develop ophidiophobia as a result of classical conditioning due to early experiences and a negative portrayal of snakes in culture, religion, and the media.

However, others suggest that a fear of snakes is evolutionary and that humans developed an adaptive system of fear responses because of the risks that snakes presented in the past. This is a strongly debated topic, and, as of yet, researchers have not yet reached a conclusion.

However, a 2020 article suggests that although humans are not born with a fear of snakes, people may have a biological predisposition to associate them with fear.

Another 2016 study supports this theory. The authors suggest that babies and young children do not fear snakes. However, they have a strong tendency to learn to fear them. This could be due to bad experiences or negative portrayals of snakes in society.

The researchers also suggest that humans associate particular patterns with danger rather than fearing snakes specifically. In the study, they presented the children with images and asked them to categorize each image as “nice” or “mean.” The children labeled the images of snakes as “mean” if they had triangular heads.

The researchers suggest that early primates developed an aversion to triangular shapes that were potentially harmful, such as sharp teeth, claws, and horns. Many venomous snakes have triangular heads or move in zigzag patterns.

A healthcare professional may diagnose ophidiophobia based on the following diagnostic criteria:

  • a noticeable fear of snakes
  • the snake almost always results in fear or anxiety
  • the fear or anxiety outweighs the actual threat that the snake poses
  • a person actively avoids snakes, or they endure the snake with intense anxiety and fear
  • the fear is persistent, lasting at least 6 months
  • the fear causes severe distress and affects other areas of a person’s life
  • other mental health conditions do not explain the symptoms

A healthcare professional may also ask a person to fill out a questionnaire called the Snake Questionnaire, or SNAQ, which consists of 30 questions.

Various treatment options are available to people living with a snake phobia. A good first step is to consult with a qualified therapist.

Exposure therapy

A 2018 study evaluated student responses to meeting reptiles and amphibians as part of monitoring projects on a field trip.

The researchers encouraged the students to engage with the animals where possible. The hands-on experience and the use of a reflective journal enabled students to rethink their attitudes toward reptiles and amphibians.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

Some CBT techniques may help change a person’s thoughts.

A person may learn to identify connections between their behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. Another technique may enable the management of thought patterns through the use of practical skills.

Relaxation and mindfulness

Mindfulness can be helpful in treating anxiety and phobias, according to a 2021 review and meta-analysis.

Hypnotherapy

Although there is a lack of evidence to support hypnotherapy to treat anxiety or phobia, some people may find it helpful.

Medication

The NHS states that medication may help treat phobias in the short term, which can help reduce anxiety.

A doctor may prescribe:

Beta-blockers or medication for depression can help if a person has other mental health issues alongside a specific phobia.

Finding a phobia group

A person can find a group specific to their phobia through a qualified therapist.

Alternatively, the Anxiety & Depression Association of America lists existing support groups and offers advice on how to start a new support group.

A fear of snakes, or ophidiophobia, is a common phobia in which a person finds it difficult to think about, discuss, or encounter a snake. The fear can result in changed routines or a person being afraid to go outdoors in case they come across a snake.

If a person believes that they have ophidiophobia, they should contact a healthcare professional to discuss the treatment options, which include CBT. In some cases, medications can help reduce anxiety in the short term.