At the first twinge or sniff, they trawl medical websites and fear the worst. GPs’ surgeries are deluged with their demands. Peta Bee on a new and virulent strain of hypochondria.
Surveys show that while around a third of patients visiting GPs turn out to have nothing physically wrong with them, 5 per cent have actually convinced themselves they are suffering from a conditions they don’t have. This “health anxiety” (the modern term for hypochondria) is fuelled by the huge amount of medical information we have at our fingertips. Cyberchondria is a particularly virile strain of this illness-paranoia and the direct result of the proliferation of websites devoted to health. Over the course of six months, Fiona reckons she visited her local 10 times with different “illnesses”. “In the end my GP told me I had a panic disorder and that placated me,” she says. But it hasn’t quelled her appetite for health websites. These days, though, she confines her searches to around three a week and searches only on behalf of friends and family.
Certainly, it has become more difficult to avoid health paranoia. It’s not just the internet – TV and the magazines are increasingly devoting themselves to illnesses and ways to stay healthy. Last week saw the launch of A magazine, devoted entirely to the subject of allergies. I defy anyone to read it without becoming convinced they have one.