Cyberchondria: Is the Internet Spurring Health Worries?

woman looking at her phoneTake a moment to think about the last time you felt ill. Maybe you had a sore throat or perhaps your wrist started hurting for no apparent reason. Instead of getting on the phone and making an appointment with your doctor, chances are you hopped on the Internet—whether on your computer or smartphone—searched the symptoms and, based on your findings, decided whether the issue was serious enough to bring to your health care professional.


While it's good to be proactive about your health, some people take self-diagnosis too far and end up with "symptom search hypochondria." Also called cyberchondria, this condition uses online information to escalate health concerns. Here's what you need to know about this growing health trend.

What is hypochondria? Hypochondria is a condition in which people develop obsessive anxiety over potential health concerns that haven't yet been diagnosed. People who are hypochondriacs may believe they have a serious or life-threatening illness, despite the fact that there is no clear evidence of a medical problem.

It's normal to have some worries about your health, especially when you see new symptoms or problems, but hypochondriacs are more likely to experience problems at work, at home or in their relationships as a result of their concerns. In some cases, their fears may be debilitating.

What are the symptoms? Hypochondriacs may experience a variety of symptoms, including worrying that minor physical symptoms indicate a serious illness, seeing doctors excessively, getting medical tests repeatedly, frequently changing doctors to seek out other opinions, constantly talking about symptoms or diseases, obsessively researching health conditions, and frequently checking vital signs like blood pressure or pulse.

What's unique about symptom search hypochondria? The Internet is full of medical information and tools that make it easier than ever to identify illnesses and injuries. This makes it simpler for people to look for possible explanations for everyday symptoms like headaches, stuffy noses and aches and pains. The problem is that these symptoms can be related to a number of diseases and illnesses, some of which are dangerous and many of which are not. This may lead people to believe that they may have a serious illness when, in fact, they're perfectly fine.

To make matters worse, not everyone researching health issues online checks to make sure they're using legitimate, reliable sources. Hypochondriacs may view medical-related television shows, health bulletin boards and forums as informative sources, when in reality, the information may not be backed by science and may be little more than someone's opinion or personal experience, which may differ from yours. Therefore, worries are sometimes based on misleading information.

If you're going to use the Internet for health information, look for reliable sites, with medically accurate information. Generally, there are three types of sites you may want to use:

  • Government-sponsored health sites, which end with .gov, such as WomensHealth.gov, CDC.gov, NIH.gov and many more. Almost every government agency, whether it deals with health, travel, food and drug regulation or local health centers, has a website with useful consumer information. These are good starting places.
  • Established health organization websites, which end with .org, such as cancer.org, diabetes.org and, of course, HealthyWomen.org.
  • Health education sites associate with major medical schools and teaching hospitals, which may end with .edu, .org or .com, such as ClevelandClinic.org, Mayo.com and Hopkinsmedicine.org.

How can you avoid symptom search hypochondria? While medical search engines can be helpful in some cases, there's really no reason why you should use them. When you feel sick, call your health care professional if you think it may be more serious than a common cold or a tension headache. Stay up to date on your immunizations, health screenings and check-ups, and try to live a healthy lifestyle through diet and exercise. Checking symptoms online might make you feel worse, especially if you lose sleep while you're searching.

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