There’s a price to pay for working at a health and fitness site. Over the past few months, I’ve learned I probably contracted a staph infection during yoga class, my family dined on BPA puree over Thanksgiving, and my dry-clean-only dresses may be teeming with toxic chemicals. Plus, the more I fret about my impending demise, the sooner I may look like the Bride of Frankenstein.

While my concerns usually dissipate by the time I refuel on a dangerfood sandwich, some people can’t seem to stop worrying about their health. Hypochondriacs suffer from extreme health anxiety, believing that physical symptoms indicate serious illness, even without any medical signs of a problem. And though humans have been imagining illness for years, growing Internet use has spurred a new type of health-related worries. “Cyberchondria” refers to excessive health anxiety generated by online searches, says Dr. Kelli Harding, a psychiatrist who studies health anxiety.

Microsoft scientists generated a lot of publicity around cyberchondria in 2008 when they published a report on the dangers of researching health symptoms online. And while the proliferation of online health resources can certainly fuel health anxiety, cyberchondria isn’t inevitable for anyone with an Internet connection.

Cybersick — The Dangers of Online Health Searches

Need a quick headache cure? There’s an app for that. Or at least it’s worth searching for one— 61 percent of Americans turn to the Internet to answer questions about their health. And it’s not just Americans— one study found Europeans are about 20 percent more likely to use the Internet to answer a health question than to consult their physician. For many, the Internet has replaced other trustworthy sources of health information— by 2007, Americans said they had more faith in the Internet than in mass media or government health agenciesCorrelates of consumer trust in online health information: findings from the health information national trends survey. Ye, Y. Department of Communication Studies, University of Rhode Island, Kingston, Rhode Island. Journal of Health Communication, 2011;16(1);34-39..

Perhaps unsurprisingly, research suggests people with high levels of health anxiety are most likely to search online for health informationCyberchondriasis: Fact or fiction? A preliminary examination of the relationship between health anxiety and searching for health information on the Internet. Muse, K., McManus, F., Leung, C. et al. University of Oxford, Department of Psychiatry, Oxford, United Kingdom. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 2011 Epub.. But a quick visit to to rule out malaria or find remedies for the common cold doesn’t constitute a real problem. Cyberchondria, Harding says, occurs only “when worries about disease and time on the Internet start interfering with functioning effectively in work and relationships.” And forget about wasting a few minutes at a time on Facebook— Harding says cyberchondriacs may spend hours researching symptoms online every day.

Doctors think looking up health information online can be problematic because the computer doesn’t have the same diagnostic skills as a healthcare professional. Physicians determine whether an issue is serious by considering personal factors like a patient’s family history and age. (Wrinkles at age five isn’t normal— sorry, Benjamin Button.) On the other hand, when someone searches for “headaches” online, they may find several sources suggesting they’ve got a brain tumor.

But the Internet isn’t necessarily a freak-out fest for everyone. Online health resources may be tricky newfangled gadgets for older people in particular to navigate, since they often lack the same technological skills as youngsters. Research suggests Great Uncle Gus may be less capable of distinguishing between high- and low-quality online health sources than his nieces and nephewsOnline Health Information Seeking: The Influence of Age, Information Trustworthiness, and Search Challenges. Miller, L.M., Bell, R.A. University of California, Davis, CA. Journal of Aging and Health, 2011 Epub.. Older people might also be “a little afraid of the computer,” says Greatist Expert Dr. Ellen Langer. When they research a symptom online, she says, they may take the first result that pops up— even if it’s not the most accurate.

For those in their 20s and 30s, turning to the Internet for answers is usually less intimidating. Among the medical professionals we spoke to, opinions differ on whether cyberchondria poses a greater threat for this age group that pretty much grew up using computers. Some researchers think 20- and 30-somethings are less vulnerable to cyberchondria; used to reading snarky Youtube comments and celebrity gossip blogs, they know not everything on the Internet is accurate. “That generation is more experienced in evaluating the quality of [online] information,” says Greatist Expert Dr. John Sharp.

But according to Harding, cyberchondria might be more common among 20- and 30-somethings, who may not have health insurance or regular healthcare. “Compared to searching the Internet,” she says, “it can seem time consuming and expensive to consult a doctor.”

Paging Dr. Google — The Health Benefits of the Internet

While looking up information online can exacerbate health anxiety, Internet access can also be a big health benefit (though anyone who’s seen Avenue Q knows what the Internet’s really for). Even unreliable Web sources of health information can be helpful. “The misinformation on the computer actually may be a good thing,” Langer says. When people realize they can’t trust all the information they find online, they “may pay more attention to their bodies.”

Plus, patients who research their own health problems and take an active role in their care could tend to be healthier. And research also suggests having access to a reliable source of online health information is linked to improved health literacy among adolescentsAdolescent Health Literacy: The Importance of Credible Sources for Online Health Information. Ghaddar, S.F., Valerio, M.A., Garcia, C.M. et al. South Texas Border Health Disparities Center, The University of Texas-Pan American, Harlingen, TX. The Journal of School Health 2012;82(1):28-36.. The Internet can be empowering for patients, “making patient[s] and doctors partners in health care,” Harding says.

Whether the Internet’s a source of peril or empowerment depends on how we use it. (Foodgawker is definitely dangerous for anyone with a desk job.) Sharp recommends patients talk to their doctors about what they’ve found online. Tell them “the information is worrisome,” he suggests. Harding advises using the Internet as a source of second opinions about medication or medical advice, after seeing a healthcare professional.

When researching health issues online, it’s also important to consider the source of the information. Generally, reliable sources include sites that are sponsored by university medical centers and federal health agencies. But scouring the Internet to see if a runny nose is an early sign of pregnancy (hint: it’s not) is rarely a good idea. “The irony is that sitting sedentary in front of a computer researching vague health symptoms for hours on end is in itself unhealthy,” Harding says. Patients might use that time to exercise and socialize instead. And if we’re going to spend time online, it might as well be doing something relaxing, like LOLing at cats— not that we’ve ever done that…

Photo by Marissa Angell