Coping With Ostraconophobia

The Fear of Shellfish

Seafood BBQ with Japanese spiny lobsters

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Ostraconophobia, or the fear of shellfish, is fairly common. For most people, this simply means a few minor dietary restrictions. In some cases, though, it can become life-limiting.


Shellfish phobias can generally, though not always, be broken down into a few common themes. Some people are deeply afraid of food poisoning, others of breaking religious dietary restrictions. In some cases, the fear is of the texture or taste rather than the food itself. People who are allergic to shellfish often exhibit strong fears when confronted with foods that may contain shellfish, but as these fears are tied to a physical condition, they are not considered phobias. However, some people are afraid of developing an allergic reaction to shellfish, even if they have never previously had such an allergy.

Food Poisoning

Shellfish poisoning is a real, though relatively rare, threat. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), there are three main types of shellfish poisoning: paralytic, neurotoxic, and amnestic. Although the prognosis is generally good, all three types can cause severe illness. The toxins are heat-stable, so cooking does not remove the threat.

If you have ever experienced shellfish poisoning, you may be understandably reluctant to risk eating shellfish again. Even if the poisoning happened to someone else, you may be afraid that next time it will happen to you. However, it is easy to take healthy concerns too far.

According to the NIH, there is some truth to the old wives' tale that shellfish should not be consumed in months whose names do not contain an R. The toxins that cause poisoning are more active during the months of May through August, as well as during and just after a red tide. The NIH also states that these toxins occur mainly in clams, mussels, and oysters, and less frequently in scallops. Other shellfish carry a much lower risk. Of course, the elderly, children and those with preexisting medical conditions should speak with their physician before consuming any possibly risky food.

Religious Restrictions

Some religions restrict or prohibit the consumption of certain foods. In particular, Jewish and some interpretations of Islamic dietary laws forbid the eating of shellfish. For those who practice these religions, an aversion to forbidden foods is not considered a disorder.

As illustrated above, though, a problem can occur in those who were raised in strictly religious environments but no longer practice that religion. Like religion-based phobias, food-related phobias can arise when formerly religious people attempt to eat or cook in secular restaurants or homes. Many people easily make the transition, but if you are having trouble, consider seeking assistance from a mental health professional or a spiritual advisor in your new religion of choice.

Shellfish Allergies

According to our Guide to Food Allergies, shellfish allergy is the most common food allergy in adults in the United States. Unlike most allergies, an allergy to shellfish usually develops in adulthood and remains throughout the sufferer's life. Shellfish products are used in a mind-boggling array of applications, and allergic reactions can be severe and even life-threatening. Therefore, constant vigilance is medically necessary.

Like concerns about shellfish poisoning, though, it is easy to take concerns about shellfish allergies too far. If you have an allergy, discuss your condition carefully with your doctor. Learn which foods to avoid and which ones to question, and decide together whether you should carry an Epi-Pen. If you have a pen, be sure you know how to use it and carry it with you at all times.

Texture and Taste Issues

Fear and disgust are often confused. In some types of phobias, including food phobias, some sufferers demonstrate repulsion rather than an actual fear reaction. Vegetarians and vegans, as well as those who were raised with restricted diets, may be more prone to disgusted reactions to certain tastes or textures.

How to Cope

In many cases, shellfish phobias have little effect on daily life. It is entirely possible to enjoy a healthy, varied diet without ever consuming a bite of shellfish. However, this phobia can become life-limiting. Whether you are training to become a chef, cooking at a local take-out place, or simply interested in broadening your culinary horizons, it may be worthwhile to overcome your fears.

Milder cases of shellfish phobia can often be overcome simply through progressive exposure. Try bites of shellfish off a loved one's plate or pick up a shrimp or two when filling your plate at a buffet. Allow yourself plenty of time to adapt and overcome any taste or texture issues.

If your shellfish phobia is more severe, or if your work or hobbies require you to quickly beat the phobia, consider seeking professional assistance. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can often make a significant difference in a very short period of time.

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  • American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th Ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

  • National Institutes of Health. Poisoning - Fish and Shellfish. MedlinePlus.

By Lisa Fritscher
Lisa Fritscher is a freelance writer and editor with a deep interest in phobias and other mental health topics.