It can turn anything from job interviews to the most routine of family gatherings into a sweat-inducing ordeal.
But a 'love drug' produced naturally by the body during sex and childbirth could offer hope to the millions of people blighted by shyness, scientists have said.
Investigators believe oxytocin - a natural hormone that assists childbirth and helps mothers bond with newborn babies - could become a wonder drug for overcoming shyness.
Shy girl with hand over face
Scientists found the drug could help shyness
Trials have found that oxytocin can reduce anxiety and ease phobias. Researchers say the hormone offers a possible, safe, alternative to alcohol as a means of overcoming the problem.
Sixty per cent of Britons say they have suffered from shyness and one in 10 say it impedes their daily life.
Researchers in the US, Europe and Australia are now racing to develop commercial forms of the hormone, including a nasal spray.
They believe it could also be turned into a 'wonder drug' to treat a range of personality disorders such as autism, depression and anxiety.
Paul Zak, a professor of neuroscience at California’s Claremont Graduate University said: 'Tests have shown that oxytocin reduces anxiety levels in users. It is a hormone that facilitates social contact between people.
What’s more, it is a very safe product that does not have any side effects and is not addictive.'
Professor Zak has tested the hormone on hundreds of patients. Its main effect is to curb the instincts of wariness and suspicion that cause anxiety.
The hormone is said to help mothers bond with their babies
Produced naturally in the brain during social interactions, it promotes romantic feelings, helps mothers bond with babies and makes people more sociable.
Oxytocin is released during orgasm and is also the key birthing hormone that enables the cervix to open and the contractions to work. Where labour has to be induced, it is often given to the mother intravenously to kick-start contractions.
Professor Zak said: 'We've seen that it makes you care about the other person. It also increases your generosity towards that person. That's why (the hormone) facilitates social interaction.'
In other recent trials, researchers at Zurich University in Switzerland have managed to ease symptoms of extreme shyness in 120 patients by giving them the hormone treatment half an hour before they encountered an awkward situation.
Oxytocin spray has also been successfully trialled at the University of New South Wales.
Autistic patients given oxytocin as part of a study in New York found their ability to recognise emotions such as happiness or anger in a person's tone of voice - something which usually proved difficult - also improved.
Experiments by Dr Eric Hollander at the city's Mount Sinai School of Medicine found a single intravenous infusion of the chemical triggered improvements that lasted for two weeks.
Previous research has revealed autistic children have lower than usual levels of oxytocin in their blood.
Professor Zak said: 'Oxytocin does not cure autism, but it does reduce the symptoms.'
Studies on rats at Emory University in Atlanta also suggested the hormone made the rodents more faithful to their partners.
The potential uses of oxytocin offer commercial possibilities well beyond individual patients too. Restaurants, for instance, could spray a thin mist over customers to put them at ease.
It could be used as a benign form of tear gas, quelling any violent feelings among groups of demonstrators, or, building on the Atlanta research, even to prevent extramarital affairs.
Previous research into the hormone by Professor Zak suggested that generous people had higher than average levels of oxytocin in the brain, while mean-spirited people have lower than normal levels.
Researchers gave doses of oxytocin and a placebo to participants, who were then asked to decide how to split a sum of cash with a stranger. Those given oxytocin offered 80 per cent more money than those given a placebo.
However, despite the many potential benefits of the research projects, some scientists have sounded warnings over the negative potential uses the hormone offers.
They say oxytocin could have potential as a date-rape drug as it is involved in both trust and sexual arousal.