It's become an integral part of modern life: You experience a random physical symptom—a headache, say, or a muscle twitch, or a rash—and whereas in those prelapsarian days before the internet, it might have preoccupied you briefly then disappeared before you'd even gotten around to calling a doctor, now a quick Google search will diagnose it as the first sign of a devastating, and terminal, disease. Cyberchondria is epidemical, a new study reveals, which is not surprising given that web searches tend to offer the impression that rare, fatal illnesses are afflicting people like colds and flus.
Researchers at Microsoft analyzed thousands of Windows Live Toolbar users' embarrassing searches, say that when they typed "headache" into a search engine, there was "a 26 percent probability that a given article pointed to a brain tumor as a possible cause of headaches." They propose, therefore, that search engines should contain algorithms that lead worried surfers to information about what their symptoms are more likely to mean, rather than the alarmist results driven by popular searches.
But in the meantime, it's suggested that people dial down their panic by paying attention to the credibility of the source: if it's written by a doctor, for example, and if it's up to date. So basically, if WedMD says that a dull ache in your lower left quadrant is the first symptom of Ebola, you should probably start wrapping up your affairs even if you've never been south of Florida.