Cyberchondria — similar to hypochondria — is when searching the internet for medical information leads to extreme health anxiety.

Over the past decade, a wealth of health information has become available online, and most people have used the internet to find health information of some kind.

A 2015 research review suggested that 90% of people in the United States have used the internet to search for health information, and a 2013 study showed that 1 in 3 adults have gone online to try and diagnose a medical condition.

These figures have likely risen in recent years as people began seeking the latest information about the COVID-19 pandemic.

For some, access to online information about our health is empowering and might even help you advocate for your care. But for others, Googling symptoms can send you down a long, scary rabbit hole, leading you to believe that you have a serious or even deadly health condition.

When this happens, it’s sometimes known as cyberchondria.

In short, cyberchondria is a term given for someone who develops extreme, unwarranted anxiety by using the internet to search for medical information.

The anxiety that arises from an online search might remain long after you’ve stepped away from the computer. You might be unable to shake the feeling that you’ve got a medical condition, though this has not been confirmed by a medical professional.

Cyberchondria is not a formal diagnosis, and you won’t find it listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

The term is a play on the word “hypochondria,” also known as illness anxiety disorder, which is listed in the DSM-5.

There is some debate over the definition of cyberchondria among psychological experts and researchers. Many experts believe that cyberchondria is relatively common.

Cyberchondria is not a formal diagnosis, so there are no official symptoms of diagnostic criteria. The reported signs differ between sources.

According to the Cyberchondria Severity Scale and a 2016 study, here are some signs to look out for:

  • You spend at least 1 to 3 hours researching your symptoms online.
  • Your online searches make you feel distressed and anxious, rather than reassured or empowered.
  • Your need to search for health information feels compulsive and hard to resist.
  • You’re afraid of having several diseases, not just one or two.
  • You feel a need to seek reassurance from a doctor or medical professional.
  • You distrust the answer you get from a medical professional.
  • You feel a compulsive need to recheck your symptoms online, even after doing exhaustive searches before. On some days, you might recheck your symptoms four or five times, or more.

It’s worth noting, however, that it might be difficult for you to recognize cyberchondria in yourself because of the way anxiety works and impacts your thinking patterns. It might be easier for a friend, family member, or a healthcare professional to recognize it in someone else.

Cyberchondria, like illness anxiety disorder and anxiety more generally, can have an impact on someone’s quality of life, especially if it is severe.

Anxiety can be debilitating and make it more difficult to do daily activities.

Anxiety can also raise your stress levels. Stress and anxiety can lead to physical symptoms, including elevated blood pressure and headaches.

Anxiety can also have impacts on your relationships with friends and family, or take a toll on your career if you end up missing work too often for doctor visits. It might even take a financial toll if you request a number of medical tests.

Researchers aren’t exactly sure what causes it, but like with other forms of anxiety, there are a few risk factors.

If you live with depression or anxiety already, you might also be more prone to cyberchondria because those mental health conditions already make you prone to worrying and rumination.

You might also be more likely to develop cyberchondria if you have personal experience of illness. For example, if you experience a death in your family — especially if it is sudden — or someone close to you has developed an illness, you might be more likely to worry about your own health.

New parents might also develop anxiety around the health of their newborn.

A 2019 study suggested that people with low self-esteem might be more likely to develop cyberchondria.

One influencing factor may be that it is easier to search for medical information online than to talk with a doctor, especially if going to the doctor causes anxiety. You no longer have to go to a library to look up your symptoms — you just have to open Google on your phone or computer.

With so much medical information available — and with different sources offering conflicting information — it’s easy to begin feeling anxious about what you’re reading.

If you think you might have cyberchondria, some research suggests that people stop going online to look for health information. While health-related information isn’t inherently dangerous, developing obsessions can be a source of significant anxiety.

If you’re looking for health information online, it can help to choose your sources carefully. Look for well-researched, clear, and empathetic sources of information if you go online. This can help contextualize how common certain illnesses actually are.

Consider talking with your primary care doctor about health anxiety and medical information online. You can also talk with a mental health professional, such as a therapist or counselor, to help you understand and manage the anxiety that arises around health and medical information.