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Are You a Cyberchondriac?

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Hero Images/Getty Images,

by Sara Altshul

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When I recently discovered mouse droppings in our attic, I remembered reading that breathing in dust from rodent waste can transmit hanta virus, which causes a potentially deadly lung infection. I immediately rushed to my computer and searched through page after page of hanta-related advice and learned how to safely deal with the problem (spray with bleach, don’t sweep—vacuum). Still, I worried over my family’s every little cough, sneeze and ache—and obsessively searched each symptom online. I feared I was turning into a cyberchondriac. How would I know if my need for online information had become unhealthy? 

Cyberchondria officially became a thing in 2001 when a BBC news story reported that people who’d diagnosed themselves via the Internet were showing up in physicians’ offices carrying thick wads of computer printouts about their suspected illnesses. Today our penchant for looking up symptoms and diseases online—as some 8 out of 10 American adults do—and worrying whether we’ve got something serious has become so prevalent that at least two medical journals have published studies about cyberchondria.

 “With the proliferation of websites devoted to health and disease, almost everyone has checked for this or that symptom at some time. I’ve certainly had patients come in about a symptom because of something they’ve read online. After all, we think that if it’s on the Internet, it must be true, right?” says Dr. Marc I. Leavey, a primary care specialist with Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.

Though it's attracted research interest, cyberchondria is still not an official mental illness diagnosis says N.B. Schmidt, distinguished research professor and director of the Anxiety and Behavioral Health Clinic at Florida State University. “That means official symptoms haven’t been created yet. That said, we would define cyberchondria as excessive health seeking behaviors on the web that cause you significant distress or impairment.” 

If you view the Internet as the world’s largest library, can you picture yourself wandering through its stacks and deliberately pulling out books that trouble or scare you?

Dr. Marc I. Leavey, Primary care specialist

In other words, if you’re spending hours on the computer researching your symptoms, and if your anxiety about those symptoms—real or imagined—affects your life, discuss your concerns with your health care practitioner. Think of it this way, advises Leavey: “If you view the Internet as the world’s largest library, can you picture yourself wandering through its stacks and deliberately pulling out books that trouble or scare you?” Probably not.

Research has shown that cyberchondria is strongly linked to health anxiety, according to a 2015 study published in the journal Psychiatry Research. In the study, researchers asked 468 people to complete a battery of questions about cyberchondria and obsessive-compulsive behaviors. The researchers discovered links between behaviors such as compulsive hand-washing and repeatedly checking to see if the stove is off. They also observed that people with more symptoms of cyberchondria also exhibited behaviors associated with obsessive-compulsive disorders.

Cyberchrondria Can Fuel Anxiety

Far from making you a calm, informed consumer, cyberchondria can make you feel worse, a recent study found. Thomas Fergus, an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience in Baylor’s College of Arts and Sciences studied 512 healthy young adults and learned that people who have trouble handling uncertainty may become more anxious, search more obsessively, monitor their symptoms more carefully and visit their doctors more frequently.

When asked how he advises people who continually try to diagnose themselves on the Internet, Leavey says, “Don’t do it!” Though he’s joking, he wants you to know that you should choose your medical information websites wisely and limit how much time you spend searching. “There are websites with medical status and backing, and then there are the fringe sites supported by anecdotes,” he notes.

How the Internet Can Help Your Health

The Internet is a powerful health tool if you’re wise about the smartest ways to mine it for information, says Leavey. These suggestions can help point the way.

Go pro. Use reliable sites and sources, suggests Leavey. These will have .gov or .edu addresses such as university medical centers, hospitals or official government sites. Think Mayo Clinic or Cleveland Clinic, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and MedlinePlus, for example.

Make sure info has been medically reviewed. Much of the health information on WebMD and Everyday Health, for example, has been written or reviewed by doctors or other health care professionals.

Visit reputable nonprofits. These will be .org addresses and familiar entities such as the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society and the American Diabetes Association. Information on these sites is typically vetted by medical experts and can help you manage your specific health condition.

Need a doc? Medical professional organizations, such as the American Orthopaedic Association, the American Gastroenterological Association and the American Geriatrics Society, for example, offer links to qualified specialists in your area and are also reliable sources of health information.