A specific phobia is an intense, irrational fear of something that poses little or no actual danger. Some of the more common specific phobias are fear of closed-in places (claustrophobia), heights, escalators, tunnels, highway driving, flying, dogs, spiders and injuries involving blood. Such phobias aren't just extreme fear; they are irrational fear of a particular thing. A person with a specific phobia may be able to risk danger everyday as a firefighter but be unable to fly in an airplane. Adults with phobias realize that these fears are irrational but facing, or even thinking about facing, the feared object or situation brings on severe anxiety or a panic attack.
Specific phobias affect almost 20 million adult Americans and are twice as common in women as men. They usually appear early in life and tend to persist into adulthood. The causes of specific phobias are not well understood, but there is some evidence that the tendency to develop them may run in families.
If the feared situation or feared object is easy to avoid, people with specific phobias may not seek help; but if avoiding it interferes with their careers or their personal lives, it can become disabling enough for them to seek treatment. Specific phobias respond very well to carefully targeted psychotherapy.