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Warning: Searching Online for Health Info Can Make You Sick

The Exchange

If you're the type of person who needs definitive answers, you might want to stop searching online for health information. According to the results of a new study, certain people who scour the Web for answers to their medical problems may in fact end up worried sick.

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Computer searching in a coffee shop
That's because when they have what's called "cyberchondria," a state of anxiety related to health research on the Internet, it can get worse as reliable information is sought, but not necessarily found. We've all heard of, and perhaps even experienced, hypochondria -- this is the version for the online world.

"If I'm someone who doesn't like uncertainty, I may become more anxious, search further, monitor my body more, go to the doctor more frequently -- and the more you search, the more you consider the possibilities," Thomas Fergus, an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University in Texas, said in a press release. "If I see a site about traumatic brain injuries and have difficulties tolerating uncertainty, I might be more likely to worry that's the cause of the bump on my head."

The findings, published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, note that, along with specifically worrying about having a disease, health concerns "can trigger worries about potential medical bills, disability and job loss," which can then spawn more Internet research, visits to the doctor and testing that wasn't ever needed. The press release discussing the results says previous research has indicated that about 80% of Americans go online to hunt for health information.

In this particular study, Fergus asked 512 healthy adults, with an average age of 33.4, questions regarding how much they worried about their health and whether they wanted to know what was in store for their futures. For some of us, this isn't the best idea. It's possible that "the online glut of medical information -- some of it from questionable sources -- may be more disturbing than that contained in medical manuals," the release said.

The journal requires a subscription, but, along with the press statement, the abstract is free. The article, titled, "Cyberchondria and Intolerance of Uncertainty: Examining When Individuals Experience Health Anxiety in Response to Internet Searches for Medical Information," determined that, as a person's inability to deal with health uncertainty grew, "the relationship between the frequency of Internet searches for medical information and health anxiety grew increasingly stronger."

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