Compulsively searching for health information online could cause this common disorder

Compulsively searching for health information online could cause this common disorder

In the age of “Dr. Google,” it can be tempting to click your way to self-diagnosis — but an overload of health information can cause its own set of symptoms.

“Cyberchondria,” a subset of health anxiety, is described as a condition in which an individual excessively searches for health information online

While cyberchrondria may not start as a physical disease, it can cause intense levels of anxiety and fear that can negatively impact a person’s health, according to Dr. Maggie Williams, a family physician in Scottsdale, Arizona, and medical director for MDLIVE Virtual Primary Care.

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Dr. Marc Siegel, clinical professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center and a Fox News medical contributor, said he and his colleagues used to call the condition “medical students’ disease.”

An overload of health information can cause its own set of symptoms called “cyberchondria,” or heightened health anxiety.  (iStock)

“When you know a little, but not enough, you imagine you have everything and constantly worry,” he told Fox News Digital.

Although cyberchondria is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as a formal diagnosis, it’s thought to be closely related to hypochrondria, a more general heightened anxiety about one’s health.

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In 2014, two U.K. researchers, Eoin McElroy and Mark Shevlin, created a “cyberchrondria severity scale” that measures a person’s score across eight areas: compulsion, distress, excessiveness, reassurance seeking and mistrust of medical professionals.

Growing prevalence of cyberchrondria

As Siegel pointed out, the condition is becoming more common over time. 

“The invention of the internet and then the perfection of search engines created a global hypochondria, where patients searched to find possible explanations for their symptoms,” he said.

Google symptoms

“The invention of the internet and then the perfection of search engines created a global hypochondria, where patients searched to find possible explanations for their symptoms,” a doctor told Fox News Digital. (iStock)

“It especially increased during the pandemic, when dogma abounded and everyone was suddenly an expert,” Siegel added.

A study published in JIMR Formative Research last year found that COVID-19 caused a spike in the condition in spring 2020, as people experienced higher levels of “cyberchondria-related distress and compulsion during the pandemic.”

“The invention of the internet and then the perfection of search engines created a global hypochondria, where patients searched to find possible explanations for their symptoms.”

One user shared experiences with cyberchrondria on Reddit: “I thought that I might see something that will ease my mind, but … it makes it all worse and worse. Out of the 100 times I checked a symptom online, only 10 of them kinda made me feel safe.”

Another user wrote, “I’m pretty sure I have this. The pandemic definitely made my health anxiety worse. Unfortunately, the pandemic also made it harder to get in to see a doctor in a timely manner and so the internet is the next logical place to look for answers.”

Man at computer

In one study, more than half of respondents said they searched online instead of going to the doctor — and more than two in five turned to social media to ask about their symptoms. (iStock)

In a small study by MDLIVE Virtual Primary Care, more than half of respondents said they searched online instead of going to the doctor, and more than two in five (42%) turned to social media to ask about their symptoms.

Another 22% said they rely on artificial intelligence for medical answers.

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Nearly half of the 518 respondents, who provided data in August 2023, said they have misdiagnosed or mistreated an issue based on information they found online.

As Siegel warned, online medical information “isn’t often accurate, and it isn’t filtered, and it lacks clinical judgment.”

Telltale signs of cyberchondria

Several signs may indicate that people are experiencing cyberchondria, Williams said.

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“Most people may not recognize the symptoms before it’s too late, after they’ve invested hours, delayed access to the doctor and worsened their overall anxiety,” she told Fox News Digital.

One warning sign is spending one to three hours or more at a time searching for symptoms online.

Woman on iPad

A quarter of survey respondents said that when experiencing a health issue, they spend more than one hour searching for their symptoms online. (iStock)

A quarter of the survey respondents said that when experiencing a health issue, they spend more than one hour searching for their symptoms online.

Obsessive medical searches may also get in the way of day-to-day activities, Williams noted.

In the MDLIVE study, 41% of respondents said that compulsively searching for symptoms has gotten in the way of their daily tasks.

“Most people may not recognize the symptoms before it’s too late, after they’ve invested hours, delayed access to the doctor and worsened their overall anxiety.”

“You may feel a compulsion to search online constantly, often rechecking symptoms multiple times, despite having completed an exhaustive search,” Williams said.

Another symptom of cyberchrondria is high levels of distress and anxiety when searching for symptoms online — an rather than easing of concerns.

Doctor and patient

It’s best to consult with a health care professional at the onset of any symptoms, a doctor advised.  (iStock)

Fifty-eight percent of the participants in MDLIVE’s study said that searching online for their symptoms made them more anxious. 

“You may also have a heightened fixation on a particularly serious disease or condition, despite any evidence that you are suffering from it,” Williams added.

Addressing or preventing cyberchondria

If you think you may be experiencing symptoms of cyberchondria, Williams said it’s important to set boundaries on the time spent searching for health information online. 

“Resist the urge to check and recheck symptoms,” she advised.

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She also recommends avoiding “deep diving” into online forums or threads where people share “worst-case scenarios.” 

“These tend to be exceptions rather than the rule, which can unnecessarily increase your anxiety,” she said.

It’s best to consult with a health care professional at the onset of any symptoms, Williams advised. 

Telehealth

For those who might have trouble physically getting to a doctor’s office, a doctor suggested setting up a telehealth visit to address concerns in a timely manner, which will reduce the temptation to dive into online searching. (iStock)

“They can provide accurate information about your health concerns, potentially helping you to sidestep the slippery slope of cyberchondria,” she said.

Siegel noted that as a physician, one of his jobs is to help patients sort through their fears and worries and put them in perspective of real risk and disease. 

“You may also have a heightened fixation on a particularly serious disease or condition, despite any evidence that you are suffering from it.”

“This is even more the case with social media, where you end up searching through videos — especially TikTok — and become convinced you have a disease,” he said. “This all increases anxiety and is bad for health.”

For those who might have trouble physically getting to a doctor’s office, Williams suggested setting up a telehealth visit to address concerns in a timely manner, which will reduce the temptation to dive into online searching.

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It’s important to address cyberchrondria seriously, just as you would with any other health issue, she said.

“If you’re experiencing anxiety related to your health, you may find it helpful to speak with a mental health professional.”

Woman with doctor

For people suffering from cyberchondria, experts recommend finding a trustworthy doctor who can guide them. (iStock)

While there are some reputable sources of health information on the internet, not all online information is factual or trustworthy.

“I still rely on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Institutes for Health, Mayo Clinic, NYU Langone and CIDRAP (Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy),” said Siegel.

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That said, he warned that even vetted medical websites can still sometimes be wrong.

For those suffering from cyberchondria, Siegel advised them to find a doctor they can trust who can help guide them, while at the same time pulling back from online sources.

For more Health articles, visit www.foxnews.com/health.

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