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Don't let online health sites turn you into a 'cyberchondriac'

From CNET Magazine: The internet is a great source of information to keep us healthy. Sometimes, though, we take it to extremes.

Erwin Wodicka, ullstein bild via Getty Images

Feeling poorly? Chances are, you've already checked out a few of the thousands of websites, medical papers and news stories out there on the internet to try to figure out why you feel the way you do.

There's also a good chance your brain glommed onto something frightening (CANCER!) before deciding on a more likely cause. And you know -- just know! -- you're having a heart attack and not heartburn, despite scarfing down three bowls of two-alarm chili in a single sitting.

There's actually a word for this: "cyberchondria." It refers to unfounded heightened concerns about common symptoms after reading medical websites and online articles.

A 2008 report published by Microsoft Research, in fact, said almost 40 percent of the people it studied became more anxious after researching their symptoms online. That reaction is so common that comedian John Oliver in May even joked that WebMD's motto should read, "Everything Causes Cancer."

"A tingling in the leg, you may think is neuropathy or multiple sclerosis, when it's probably just a mild sensation that will go away," says Bart Rossi, a clinical psychologist in Naples, Florida. "You can go down a wrong path very easily."

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Britt Spencer

One reason for that reaction: When we type in a symptom like, say, muscle twitches, we have to sift through a mountain of results on everything from dehydration to potassium deficiency and ALS. Worse, it can be hard figuring out the likelihood of actually having the medical condition we're reading up on.

"A big problem with the internet is you can come away pretty scared because you don't have any guidance to assist you," says Arthur Caplan, head of the Medical Ethics Division at New York University's Langone Medical Center. "You could be so scared that you may not even want to see a doctor."

Doctors included

Maybe it's fear or because we don't have decent health insurance. Maybe it's because health care costs force physicians to sprint through patients like an exercise in speed dating. Or maybe we just don't like doctors.

Whatever the reason, lots of people would rather diagnose themselves than seek a health professional's opinion.

"I think going to the doctor makes me feel more vulnerable, so I look online first. I guess I have this denial that I don't want to be in that group that's always sick," says Luis Malave, a retired school administrator in Hollywood, Florida.

And so we turn to Google as well as popular websites like WebMD, MayoClinic.com and Medlineplus.gov.

We'll even pay sites to get medical care. HealthTap charges $49 for unlimited monthly access to its network of more than 100,000 physicians in the United States. Doctor on Demand charges consumers $40 to speak with a doctor via video.

Then there's Curely, which has attracted about 300,000 members who pay various fees to consult with nearly 2,000 accredited doctors in 54 countries. Doctors can create their own profiles highlighting their medical background and degrees. They also set their own hours and price per consultation. That could range as low as $2 to as high as $50, depending on their specialties.

All three services are available as apps that you can download from Apple's iTunes and Google Play stores.

Like most telehealth sites, the doctors practicing on Curely communicate with patients either by chatting via the site or by responding to an email. They do not offer prescriptions or diagnoses -- yet.

Dr. Shana Ageloff, who practices family medicine in Jackson, Michigan, joined Curely in February. She's fielded inquiries on managing pain from a finger cut with a knife to dealing with severe constipation. She's advised patients to seek urgent care and, if more serious, the emergency room.

"This doesn't take the place of having to go see the doctor. [But] it's never bad to get a second opinion," she says.

(Sort of) heal thyself

Such doctor-staffed websites are becoming more common. Many offer physicians waiting to answer our most pressing medical needs through video, audio, text and email. Some responses come in real time or within 24 hours.

Nearly 15 million people consulted with a doctor either online or through an online health site in 2015 -- a 50 percent increase from 2013, according to the American Telemedicine Association.

These sorts of services fill a gap between straightforward medical information, provided by the likes of National Institutes of Health and Mayo Clinic, and less public-minded sites.

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Michael Muller

"Consumers should approach the latter with extreme caution because the internet is overflowing with medical sites trying to sell you stuff," says Caplan. "If you have to go on the web, look for websites from legitimate medical centers."

It all comes down to how we use, and mentally process, the information we find online. Malave, for example, explored the web after feeling sharp pains below his abdomen 10 years ago. His diagnosis: kidney stones. Doctors said he was right.

That last part is key, says Rossi. "While you may be able to find good [medical data] online, don't let that be the end-all, be-all. In the end, go see a doctor."

Take it from Lucy Mendieta, an attorney from New York, who discovered last year that she might have appendicitis after looking up symptoms, including abdominal pain, bloating and a high fever.

"I'd like to know beforehand what I'm getting into," she says. "I had surgery the next morning."

This story appears in the fall 2016 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.