Digital Hypochondria By the Numbers

It happens to the best of us: It’s late at night, and there’s a mysterious pain in your knee, your stomach is churning and your breath is shallow. You quickly turn on your computer and begin to search your symptoms, but all you get is a list of the most terrifying diseases you’ve ever heard of.

Breathing problems soon turn into bronchitis, sinusitis, asthma, and – finally – lung cancer, tuberculosis, pneumonia or AIDS. A search for “nausea causes” yields results for motion sickness, gallbladder disease, a heart attack, cancer … and a brain tumor.

It’s enough to scare a person half to death.

Which made us wonder: How often do we self-diagnose our symptoms, and how often are we right? Is our nausea really a sign of a brain tumor? We asked more than 2,000 Americans to find out.

Here’s what we learned.

Is It Time for a Doctor’s Visit?

The first thing we asked was how often Americans saw a doctor. By far, once a year was the most common answer across all age groups. However, respondents 65 years or older were most likely to get a check-up more than three times a year (29 percent).

Taking Health Matter Into Your Own Hands

How often do Americans use the internet to self-diagnose? As you might expect, very few people (1 percent) answered “never.” In fact, the majority answered “sometimes” (41 percent) or “usually” (32 percent).

Medical Self-Education

Split up Americans by those who have graduated college and those who have only completed high school, and you’ll find they’re not necessarily researching the same conditions.

This may have to do with the fact that they’re suffering from different ailments (highly educated women, for example, are less likely to get pregnant early and, until recent years, were more likely not to have children at all.) This likely explains why 5 percent of high school graduates research pregnancy while college graduates don’t – or it could be they’re simply alarmed by different things.

Anxiety was the most commonly searched condition for both groups, and both had similar queries about depression, headaches or migraines, and general pain. There are also some interesting differences. For instance, 3 percent of those that only graduated high school searched for information about bladder infections, while 3 percent of college grads researched irritable bowel syndrome.

Why Do We Search the Way We Do?

When asked why Americans look conditions up online, people with a college degree and without agreed they were curious (34 percent and 39 percent, respectively). We want to know why our knee is twitching, what causes those over-the-eye headaches, and if there’s anything we can do at home to manage our panic attacks.

For college grads, the second most common reason for researching conditions online was they were concerned a symptom was serious. For those without a college degree, the second most common reason was embarrassment. Both groups also cited a lack of free time to visit a doctor, perhaps a symptom of working too much.

Are We Any Good at Self-Diagnosing?

Most of us spend at least a little time online self-diagnosing, but are we ever right? When we pinpoint a cause for our headaches, churning stomachs, side splints and racing hearts, do we hit the nail on the head or just scare ourselves sleepless?

When we asked Americans how often they were right about their diagnoses, 60 percent said “usually” or “sometimes.” Only 15 percent were “rarely” right about their condition, and 3 percent were “never” correct.

Interestingly, 20 percent never confirmed their diagnoses.

Which Conditions Are We Most Likely to Get Right?

Perhaps we’re better at self-diagnosing than we thought … but are there certain illnesses and conditions we’re more likely to spot ourselves?

The answer is yes. Depression and anxiety were the easiest issues for men and women to self-diagnose. This was followed by the flu, headaches or migraines, allergies and general pain.

On the other end of the spectrum, itching, ADHD, tingling sensations and trouble concentrating were conditions Americans often wrongly diagnosed.

How Do We Feel When We Self-Diagnose?

The majority of Americans feel anxious when they self-diagnose (47 percent). It might just be that Americans are an anxious group of people (after all, anxiety disorders affect roughly 18 percent of people in the U.S.) Or it could be that pain, migraines and racing heartbeats are no laughing matter.

People also felt relieved (18 percent) or neutral about their self-diagnosis (24 percent).

What Answers Are Americans Searching For?

As we determined, just playing Dr. Google makes many of us feel anxious. Now, let’s pair that with this tidbit: The most commonly searched for medical symptom actually is “anxiety.”

Anxiety can manifest itself in so many ways there are literally hundreds of potential symptoms out there – ranging from heart palpitations to itchy arms. Many people who suffer from anxiety especially fear the unknownwhich might well lead them to spend sleepless nights trying to determine just what’s wrong in an endless cycle.

Depression, pain and headaches also topped our list of most searched for symptoms, likely because they are all common conditions with causes that can be hard to pin down.

Do Men and Women Differ in What They Search For? 


We also found men and women generally search for same symptoms in roughly the same percentages. This is true even when it comes to headaches or migraines, which researchers say are experienced far more frequently by women than by men for reasons that aren’t well understood.

This suggests that perhaps when people are symptom-searching, they’re not always doing it to diagnose their own maladies. It certainly makes sense in the case of migraines and headaches. Staring, head throbbing, at the bright light of a smartphone or computer would likely worsen the pain. It’s very possible that some men are symptom-searching to diagnose their partner’s grief.  

Taking Care of Our Health

Our vast access to medical information online can be useful (remember: Almost 60 percent of Americans “usually” or “sometimes” accurately diagnosed themselves). However, the most important thing you can do when experiencing pain, anxiety or strange symptoms is to seek someone more qualified than the internet: A medical professional.

It’s also important to make sure you have good health insurance coverage, something that NetQuote can help you with. We’ve done the legwork of diagnosing a number of medical professionals and can help you find the plan that fits your needs.



We surveyed more than 2,000 people to determine their experiences with online medical information.

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