Earlier this year, when my flu symptoms persisted for weeks, I was convinced I had valley fever, an incurable virus that's mostly found in the western U.S. I came to this (incorrect) conclusion after spending hours googling my symptoms. While researching symptoms online can be helpful, when it's taken to the extreme it blurs into what's known as cyberchondria, or self-diagnosing illnesses on the internet, Scientific American reported.
The term is an evolution of hypochondria, which is when people are convinced they have an illness despite being perfectly healthy. (Hypochondria is now called "health anxiety," and is a diagnosable mental health issue.) We all engage in this behavior to some extent, and it's definitely helpful to educate yourself before visiting a doctor because you know yourself and your medical history better than anyone else.
For people with chronic health conditions who have a difficult time finding a doctor who believes them, researching symptoms online can arm patients with valuable information they need when seeking medical care. Actor Gino Anthony Pesi, who played James Nava, assistant district attorney and Jennifer Lopez's love interest on the cop drama Shades of Blue, told Will Thorne for Variety that he actually did successfully diagnose himself online. It saved his life.
"I was going through terrible medical issues," he said. "Over the course of five years, there was a list of about 10 symptoms I had, and my health was declining in many ways. I had been to five different doctors and they were all telling me that it was symptoms of old age [at age 32]."
After extensive online research of his symptoms, Pesi suspected something was off with his hormones, and when he couldn't get doctors to listen to him he took matters into his own hands. "I paid for my own lab work. The test came back really high. I walked the results into the doctor’s office and I said, 'I think I have a tumor in my pituitary, and I think it’s caused a disease in my body called acromegaly.'" He was right, had surgery to remove the tumor, and has since fully recovered.
Another study published in the Medical Journal of Australia found that researching symptoms before going to the emergency room is actually helpful. This might be because the doctor you see in the ER doesn't know you, and ER doctors generally don't get to spend a lot of time with patients. Being your own health advocate is always a good thing. "Searching [symptoms online] had a positive impact on the doctor–patient interaction and was unlikely to reduce adherence to treatment," the study reported.
However, not all people who turn to the internet to self diagnose health problems are actually sick, and excessive self-diagnosing can negatively affect your mental health. One woman told Charles Schmidt for Scientific American that turning to Dr. Google for medical advice convinced her that she had a devastating disease.
"The more I learned, the more I found reasons to believe my worst-case scenario was correct. I ignored the information that should have reassured me — such as the rarity of the disease — and focused instead on what confirmed my suspicions."
What's more, constantly googling symptoms can lead to anxiety, according to a study published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking. "For some individuals, searching for medical information on the internet is associated with an exacerbation of health anxiety," the study reported. "The relationship between the frequency of internet searches for medical information and health anxiety grew increasingly stronger as IU [intolerance of uncertainty] increased."
If you spend hours a day trying to match minor or imagined symptoms with serious medical conditions, your cyberchondria could be alleviated by talking to a therapist. (It's important to note that it can be helpful to research your symptoms online, as long as is doesn't take over your life.)
"If you are in the throes of anxiety or panic, you need a doctor for that too. Don’t be afraid to reach out for mental or physical health. Never be ashamed of that," the woman quoted in Scientific American said. She also added that there's no harm in seeking medical advice if you're actually worried. If you have serious symptoms, don't ignore them. And if your doctor won't listen or run tests, find one who will.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.