Avoiding the wormhole: What to know about searching your symptoms online

When a strange ache, a scary cough, or a curious rash pops up, you quickly reach for your phone to find the root cause. Next thing you know, you've bounced from website to website and diagnosed yourself with the help of Dr. Google. Or, maybe while scrolling through social media, a video catches your eye with an influencer describing a symptom, and you think, "Oh, I have that!" But before you jump to conclusions, there are a few things you should consider.


Why is it so tempting to search your health symptoms online?

The internet is a treasure trove of information readily available at our fingertips, so it's no wonder your first instinct may be to search online. From search engines to social media, you're likely used to getting answers quickly, so the accessibility and immediacy of the internet are appealing. And you're not alone – according to our Suzy survey, 72 percent of respondents say they turn to online sources before going to a doctor when experiencing a non-emergency medical issue.1

Other reasons you may turn to online resources rather than a medical professional include a busy schedule, the hassle or disruption of your day, potential embarrassment, or you don't think your symptoms are severe.

  • 1An MDLIVE and Hearst custom Suzy survey among 518 Hearst brand engagers, n = 518; August 2023
Pitfalls of symptom searching

The pitfalls of online symptom searching

  • Fact or fiction: While online searches can occasionally provide clarity, they more often lead to a wormhole of information that can be confusing, contradictory, and even outright false. Not all health information found online is accurate or trustworthy.

  • Misdiagnosis mistakes: You may also misdiagnose and mistakenly self-treat something you don't have. Without a comprehensive understanding of medical conditions, it's easy to misinterpret information found online.

  • Delayed response: If your searches make you think you have a less serious condition, it may also delay treatment – leading to potential complications if you have a serious condition.

The anxiety spiral: You may find yourself down a rabbit hole – spending hours searching and causing significant health anxiety. Specifically, searching online can be a cause of cyberchondria, which is a subset of health anxiety related to online searching.

What is cyberchondria?

What is cyberchondria?

Combining the words "cyber" and "hypochondria," cyberchondria is a condition where an individual excessively searches for health information online, causing anxiety and fear about their wellbeing. Much like a rabbit hole, the more you explore, the deeper you fall, leading to increasing stress and a skewed perception of your health.

Spotting the symptoms

Here's what to look out for that may indicate you're experiencing cyberchondria2 ,3 :


  • Excessive time, often at least 1-3 hours or more, searching your health symptoms online.
  • Rechecking symptoms and sources multiple times despite having completed a thorough search.
  • Continued searching causes more distress and anxiety rather than eases concerns about your symptoms.
  • Searching for your symptoms has gotten in the way of your everyday tasks.
  • Fixation on a particular serious disease or condition without any evidence you have it.
  • Heightened distress, even after a doctor's reassurance.
  • 2
  • 3
Dr. Maggie Williams, medical director for MDLIVE Virtual Primary Care

How to avoid cyberchondria

According to Dr. Maggie Williams, medical director for MDLIVE Virtual Primary Care, some of the ways to avoid cyberchondria are:

Set clear boundaries on time spent searching health information online.
Set clear boundaries on time spent searching health information online. Resist the urge to check and recheck symptoms.

Avoid deep diving into forums or threads where people share worst-case scenarios.
Avoid deep diving into forums or threads where people share worst-case scenarios. These tend to be exceptions rather than the rule, which can unnecessarily increase your anxiety.

Consult a healthcare professional at the outset of symptoms.
Consult a healthcare professional at the onset of symptoms. Talking with a doctor during a telehealth visit offers a quick and trustworthy way to get clarity on your health concerns. Having concerns addressed fast from the comfort of home can reduce the temptation to dive into unchecked online resources and the resulting anxiety.

Click, search, worry:

The 411 on symptom searching.

How people look for help with their symptoms:


typically search their symptoms online when experiencing a non-emergency medical issue.


search their symptoms on social media.


use generative A.I. services to diagnose their symptoms.

When they’re searching:


search their symptoms BEFORE going to the doctor.


said they search their symptoms INSTEAD OF going to the doctor.

Why they go online:


say they search because going to the doctor’s office is too


say they search to determine how serious their health issue may be.

The pitfalls of searching your symptoms online:


have misdiagnosed or mistreated an issue based on information they found during their self-search.


say they’ve gotten misinformation from social media health content.


admit searching their symptoms online has made them more anxious.


say they spend more than one hour searching their symptoms when experiencing a health issue.


say searching their symptoms has gotten in the way of daily responsibilities.

I think I have cyberchondria. What should I do?

I think I have cyberchondria. What should I do?

If you think you're suffering from cyberchondria, treating this as you would any other health concern is essential. Reach out to a healthcare professional such as your primary care physician, psychiatrist, or psychologist. And for the time being, avoid doing any health-related searches online.

While the digital world offers many answers, it's important to approach online health information with caution. When dealing with a health concern, having a visit with an MDLIVE board-certified doctor in minutes can help quickly ease your anxiety. Your doctor will help you get to get to the root of your concern without the added stress. Your wellbeing is worth it.

Posted date: November 07, 2023

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