Let´s be real, we´ve all done it – got a weird symptom but no time to go to your doctor´s office, so you google it just to be sure it´s nothing fatal – and the result? Everything ranging from a mild allergic reaction through sinus infection up to cancer or a never-heard-before cardiovascular disease. Will you now see your doctor? No, you´ll just google some more to rule out the risk of sudden hemorrhage in the street or death from an unnoticed botulism.
Apparently we´re exaggerating but this scenario is not so far away from reality of many.
The thin line which differentiates between casual googling of your symptoms and real cyberchondria lays only in the consequences this quest has on you. If you realize you´re not having cancer and your headache can be probably treated by an increased intake of water, everything is just OK. However, many people unintentionally get so overwhelmed by the scary diagnoses they find that they are no longer able to continue living their lives normally due to this fear of mysterious illnesses they just recently learned about, they basically go crazy…
Googling sickness can make you sick
The problem with googling symptoms online is that when you enter e.g. a headache, your website will give you at least 15 different potential diagnoses that include your one symptom so that you can rationally choose – but can you really? Let´s say you have a headache and some fullness in your abdomen (you probably ate too much and drank too little or you´re just exhausted and stressed) and among the first results you´ll get is pregnancy. You read about other potential pregnancy symptoms, you realize there´s a 0.1% chance that you could be pregnant even on the contraceptive pill (or even higher since you took it an hour later a few days ago) and suddenly you start feeling unusual cravings such as chocolate-covered chips. Surely, you had that one before but what if you´re pregnant?! Even if the condition is highly improbable, you can actually develop physical symptoms because you start to believe you have it. If it´s pregnancy, well, it might as well be a good thing after all but if you worry about having a brain tumor (because that´s another diagnosis you could get by entering “headache” into a symptom checker), your anxiety levels can get so high, you´ll bring on inflammation to your body simply by excessive worrying. A study published in Psychopatology in 2010 also confirmed that people who were classified as “Internet addicts” showed considerably higher levels of depression. Although it wasn´t aimed at cyberchondriacs, it only validated the link between excessive Internet use and mild psychological disorders – so we can safely assume that cyberchodnria isn´t healthy (duh). Besides the disorder itself, it can consequently lead to other problems, such as elevated levels of anxiety, withdrawal from social life, or unnecessary use of certain medication if misdiagnosed. Since “pharmaceutical drugs have been officially declared as the main cause of death in America,” it would be advisable not to use any medications without your doctor´s consent, not even those over-the-counter pills like analgesics or antacids.
If it´s so dangerous, why do we do that?
In this hectic world where we have no time to do anything more than work we planned on doing, the first reason must be lack of time. Often, the office hours of GPs or specialists range between 7AM and noon which means there´s no way you´re going to make it because of work, and if you want to book an afternoon appointment, you´re going to have to go to a private hospital and pay an ungodly amount of money, so you rather decide your condition is not so serious and just google it. In 2013, the Information Standard of UK reported that 40% of people postpone the doctor´s visit, with almost half of them saying they look for information online. The statistics also revealed that it was mostly women who look up health information on the Internet, and 43% of them do actually diagnose themselves online and delay a doctor´s visit if they can treat their symptoms without it. If you consider official information from Google which claims that “one in 20 Google searches are for health-related information,” imagine how many women must be browsing the medical sites on the Internet right now – and possibly misdiagnosing and mistreating themselves! However, I dare to bring up the idea that this behavior may only be an answer to the low healthcare standards which we´re not willing to accept. Every one of us has certainly experienced a doctor who was bored or angry with patients who wanted to ask questions – and even though it´s in our constitution that we get a free and especially good healthcare, we have just probably lost hope that it will ever improve. Now, doctors who love their job and do it right, please don´t get upset, we appreciate the few of you when we come across those of you but we´ll google some possible answers anyway, just to be sure. Then, maybe we just want to be independent as a result of Americanization but we can say with a certainty, people don´t trust doctors anymore.
If you have to cyber-check your symptoms, do it wisely
As we mentioned above that about half of women (and 37% of men) regularly visit medical websites to check their health condition, we don´t expect you to stop doing it. However, if you feel like google your brain out, sitting 4 hours in front of your computer and researching heavily, just try not to overdo it to the point of utter exhaustion and fulfillment because you´ve found the diagnosis and the treatment which is going to save your poor life. One thing you can do about the credibility of information is using real medical websites such as Mayo Clinic or WebMD. Then, if you have an unidentifiable condition that only a few people worldwide share with you, it is OK to use forums – these people have most probably experienced something terrible and they want to share their treatment to help others do the right thing even if some prescribed medication didn´t work. Only be hesitant when using symptom checkers – these can help you if you´re highly rational (but who is when it comes to their health and wellbeing?) and so it´s better to avoid them completely or only use the most uncommon symptom. That way you´ll only get results which may actually be relevant and you won´t have to worry about cancer or Lou-Gehrig´s disease when your eye is twitching from lack of sleep and dehydration after a night out…
by Katarína Vicová
Badatel.net (2013). Výstraha: 6 skupín často užívaných liekov, na ktoré si dávajte pozor! [Caution: 6 categories of medications you should be careful about!]. Retrieved from: http://www.badatel.net/vystraha-6-skupin-liekov-na-ktore-si-davajte-pozor/
Baxter, H. (2013). Is the Internet making you (think you´re) ill? You´re a cyberchondriac. Retrieved from: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/oct/09/cyberchondriac-internet-ill-self-diagnose-symptoms
Google blog (n.d.). A remedy for your health-related questions: health info in the knowledge graph. Retrieved from: https://googleblog.blogspot.sk/2015/02/health-info-knowledge-graph.html
Innes, E. (2013). The rise of “cyberchondria:” Millions suffer anxiety about their health after Googling their symptoms. Retrieved from: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2449801/Cyberchondria-anxiety-Googling-health-symptoms-rises.html#comments
Science 2.0 (2010). Too much googling causes depression? Retrieved from: http://www.science20.com/news_articles/too_much_googling_causes_depression