You’ve probably heard of a condition called hypochondria, where people worry excessively about their health and are convinced that they have one or more serious diseases, contrary to medical evidence. The Internet may greatly amplify these worries. On a recent Dr. Phil, we discussed what some have termed cyberchondria—excessive health worry, often marked by obsessive searching of health and disease websites. A cyberchondriac may spend many hours a day online, going from one website to another, exploring various diseases and doing self-diagnosis.
At best, people who fit the description of “cyberchondriac” (the term isn’t an official medical diagnosis) may suffer with needless anxiety. At worst, their obsessive searches interfere with their careers and family lives – and their actual health. Interestingly, some ardent cyberchondriacs visit their doctors rarely, or not at all. They keep looking for answers, and even treatments, online.
If your health anxiety is dominating your life, it’s time to seek help. Visit your doctor, and talk openly about your worries and about your Internet search routine. Your doctor will evaluate your health and offer advice on keeping healthy and on avoiding excessive worry. Expert counseling may be suggested.
When you do turn to the Internet for health advice, go online with a strategy. First, write down your symptoms as completely as possible. Remember that where a disease appears on a list of websites has no relation to its prevalence in real life. Be wary of health chat rooms. Set a time limit—say, 30 minutes—on your browsing. And stick to websites with a “pedigree”—those run by the CDC, the NIH, major academic centers, or other sources of high-quality information. If you do have severe symptoms—trauma, high fever, severe pain, loss of vision, or the like, then call your doctor—or head for the emergency room.
The internet is a marvelous tool, and it can bring much of the world’s medical knowledge to your fingertips. Most doctors today expect patients to come to them armed with information from the Internet. Like most things in life, the Internet can be misused. If you suffer from excessive health worry, it’s time to do the old-fashioned thing—get offline, and off to your doctor.