Skip to content

Feeling More Grossed Out During the Pandemic? You’re Not Alone 

Study finds coronavirus has heightened sensitivities to what we find disgusting

a green faced emoji that looks grossed out

Getty Images

En español

If you’re feeling more disgusted during the COVID-19 pandemic, you’re not alone. Turns out that so-called disgust sensitivity among Americans has risen along with our concerns about getting sick.

Measuring Disgust Sensitivity

Samples of statements rated by study participants before and after the pandemic began.

  • I never let any part of my body touch the toilet seat in public restrooms.
  • I would go out of my way to avoid walking through a graveyard.
  • I probably would not go to my favorite restaurant if I found out that the cook had a cold.
  • You see someone put ketchup on vanilla ice cream, and eat it.
  • It bothers me to hear someone clear a throat full of mucous.
  • It would bother me to sleep in a nice hotel room if I knew that a man had died of a heart attack in that room the night before.
  • I might be willing to try eating monkey meat, under some circumstances.
  • You take a sip of soda, and then realize that you drank from the glass that an acquaintance of yours had been drinking from.
  • You are about to drink a glass of milk when you smell that it is spoiled.
  • You are walking barefoot on concrete, and you step on an earthworm.

Source: Ohio State University

Ohio State University researchers surveyed roughly 2,300 participants over a two-and-a-half year period, both before and during the pandemic, to assess how grossed out they are by certain pictures, ideas and situations. The scientists expected to find that the pandemic is making people more easily disgusted — and that’s exactly what they found. But it wasn’t only situations where COVID-19 may be present that disgusted people more. It was in non-pandemic settings as well.

“One item on the rating asks how disgusted you would be if you were on an elevator and someone next to you sneezed. Another asks whether you’d be disgusted by eating chocolate shaped like dog doo — which has nothing to do with interacting and contracting a disease,” Shelby Boggs, a doctoral student in psychology at Ohio State, said in a statement. “The increase in disgust sensitivity really being limited to those people who were concerned about contracting COVID-19 also eliminated a number of alternative explanations for the data.”

Can disgust levels change? 

For years, scientists and researchers have studied disgust sensitivity, trying to uncover what grosses some people out but doesn’t bother others. While it’s known that disgust levels vary from one person to the next, whether or not an individual’s disgust level can change has always been up for debate. The researchers set out to answer that question with this study.

From late 2018 through June 2022, Ohio State University asked participants to rate their reaction to certain experiences on a scale of 0 to 4, with 4 being the most disgusted. Scenarios included walking through a tunnel and smelling urine and eating ice cream with ketchup as a topping. The researchers found that prior to the pandemic, the average disgust sensitivity was 2.82. But during the pandemic, it rose to 3.26. Disgust sensitivity was higher among participants worried about COVID-19.

AARP Membership -Join AARP for just $9 per year when you sign up for a 5-year term

Join today and save 43% off the standard annual rate. Get instant access to discounts, programs, services, and the information you need to benefit every area of your life. 

Still, does that mean people will always be more easily grossed out thanks to COVID-19? The researchers don’t think so. As the risk of COVID-19 diminishes, they said, so should our disgust levels.

How Appealing Do You Find This Image?

These are actual images used by researchers at Ohio State University to gauge disgust sensitivity.

two images used in a test to determine how gross a viewer thinks they are one is a severed hand in a jar and the other is a cake  made to look like a cockroach with someone taking a slice out of it

Courtesy Ohio State University

Donna Fuscaldo is a contributing writer and editor focusing on personal finance and health. She has spent over two decades writing and covering news for several national publications including the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Investopedia and HerMoney.

More on Health