Shelley Bridgeman: Does searching symptoms make you sick?

Once upon a time (say, ten years ago) if you felt a bit crook you'd wait a few days then if the symptoms remained you'd visit the doctor. Well, not any more. These days you can diagnose your own illnesses at home on the computer. With all the ailments ever invented (and possibly quite a few that don't even exist) available for your perusal on the world wide web, the traditional GP consultation seems a tad old school.

But Google is most definitely not your friend where your health is concerned. Search your symptoms on the internet at your peril. 'Worried well' just feel worse if they catch cyberchondria reports: "Researchers found that those who fear the unknown with regard to their health only find the condition worsens as they seek answers on the internet."

Cyberchondria is the new term coined to describe the "unfounded anxiety concerning the state of one's health brought on by visiting health and medical websites".

It's the 21st century version of hypochondria and, according to one expert, may be more harmful than its low-tech relation "because of a glut of sometimes dubious material available at the click of a mouse".

According to Cyberchondria: The perils of internet self-diagnosis, "[i]t's all too easy to consult Dr Google when we're feeling under the weather - and all too easy to convince ourselves we're seriously ill."

One of the scientists who found that "the internet is giving many of us an acute case of the heebie-jeebies" likens the phenomenon to that sometimes experienced by medical school students. Evidently up to 75 per cent of first-year medical students think they have one "significant yet imaginary disease based on what they're learning ... To some extent, the internet is making first-year medical students of us all. The problem is that often the information isn't as good".

Of course, if you must do a search for your symptoms online then it's important to choose a reputable website. The US has WebMD while the UK has NetDoctor. Closer to home, the NZGP Web Directory aims "to provide an outstanding and comprehensive medical information resource for New Zealand General Practitioners, health professionals and their patients".

With research finding that as many as eight in ten Americans confess to seeking medical information on the internet, it's clear that it's far from unusual behaviour.

So when does idly looking up a medical condition online turn into full-blown cyberchondria?

That's a great question. So I consulted the internet for the answer.

Evidently 4 signs you're a cyberchondriac are:

1. You check health information websites to get relief from anxiety;

2. The time you spend checking health symptoms online is interfering with your life;

3. You seek reassurance from people in chat rooms or social networks; and

4. You see your doctor more than your friends.

In brief, it's only bona fide cyberchondria if the urge to surf the medical sites springs from an all-consuming obsession rather than an occasional surge of curiosity - which I guess leaves most of us free to self-diagnose to our heart's content, as long as we follow it up with a visit to a flesh-and-blood health professional if symptoms persist.

Do you look up your ailments online? Does it help or does it make you even more worried? Might you be displaying signs of cyberchondria?