Do You Have Cyberchondria?


By Janene Mascarella

You wake up and there’s a slight rash on your forearm that wasn’t there before. So you do what millions of Americans do -- you consult the internet. That’s where a bump on your head can possibly be brain cancer and your child’s rash is the first sign of a freaky flesh-eating disease. When the internet is your doctor, anything and everything is plausible cause for that runny nose. And if you take the advice of one anonymous commenter on a message board, you better brace for the plague. Sure we’re all guilty of it from time to time, but searcher beware: Your quest for health info may become an unhealthy obsession. It’s called ‘cyberchondria’ and that’s when that harmless skin irritation could be (after a few clicks on horrifying images) MRSA.

According to a study published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders ^1 the Internet provides the general public with easy access to over 100,000 health information websites ranging from government regulated information sites and websites run by medical professionals, to commercial search facilities and patient-led groups. The report says seeking health information is one of the most popular online pursuits and although the Internet provides a useful source of health information for many, it has been suggested that searching online for health information can fuel health anxiety.

Paging Dr. Internet...

It’s hard not to get swept away while symptom-surfing and Deborah Gilboa, MD^2 offers expert insight into this modern malady. “Cyberchondria is the completely understandable consequence of searching ‘eye pain’ (for example) and reading enough to become seriously worried that your eye will either go blind from infection in the next two hours or that you have a brain tumor. It is entirely possible to be a reasonable human, look up a symptom or illness online and become overwhelmed with anxiety in moments.” As a family doctor, Dr. Gilboa knows she is often a second opinion after ‘Dr. Internet.’ “This is not dangerous in and of itself, and can, in fact, help people to be knowledgeable and proactive,” explains Dr. Gilboa. “But unfortunately, it is too easy to focus on the awful diagnosis that your symptom might possibly represent. This can increase your anxiety and actually worsen your symptoms.”

Beware the Slippery Slope

Faye de Muyshondt^3 feels cyberchondria can indeed become a condition of its own and she believes it can affect not only your health but the health of your kids, partner—even your pets. When she recently searched for info about her toddler's nails peeling off she soon found herself in a ‘hands foot and mouth disease’ website. “If I didn't stop myself I may have come up with a number of worst case scenarios which my doctor described as nothing but toddler wear and tear!” says de Muyshondt. “Similarly, I consulted the Internet regarding my dog’s skin condition and the following day went to the doctor to find out that it wasn’t any of what my searches indicated what it may be. And chatrooms provided even worse information than the more well-known pet sites out there.”

Avoid Information Overload

What are some ways you can avoid getting addicted to searching the internet for health info and becoming obsessed with it? Dr. Gilboa offers this advice:
  1. Find balance. Think of the internet as only one of your resources, not your only resource. If you use the internet, make sure to also go to two other knowledgeable sources - like a friend you trust and a good reference from the library.
  2. Check the credibility of the internet sources you use. Is there a big, trustworthy organization that endorses this site? Great. Is the site full of "no one understands me and everything is terrible" stories? Probably not as reputable.
  3. Make sure you look at the whole list. Don't just focus on the "God forbid" possibilities, because those are a lot less common than the "no big deal" diagnoses.
  4. Researching health issues, symptoms and diagnoses all can give people resources, support and helpful tools to get and feel better sooner and stay better longer, says Dr. Gilboa, but is important, though, to have a medically-trained partner on this journey. If you don't have a doctor you trust with your life, you need a new doctor. “If your kids live in fear of every small symptom then they will not believe that they have a great deal of power (through diet, exercise, sleep, and attitude) over their own health,” she adds. Don't let the fear of what might be over-rule common sense and expert in-person consultation.

    Sources not cited or linked to above:

    ^1 Journal of Anxiety Disorders (2012):
    ^2 Family physician and author of Get the Behavior You Want, Without Being the Parent You Hate
    ^3 Today Show contributor and author of socialsklz:-) for SUCCESS^3, How to Give Children the Skills They Need to Thrive in the Modern World (2013)

This material is provided for informational use only and should not be construed as medical, legal, financial, or other professional advice or used in place of consulting a licensed professional. You should consult with an applicable licensed professional to determine what is right for you.

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