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The dangers of online self-diagnosis: new research shows expats at risk

New research shows that as an expat, you are likely to consult the internet with your health symptoms. But the risks involved can be significant. Here’s why you need to stop typing and step away from your computer.

The dangers of online self-diagnosis: new research shows expats at risk
Researching your symptoms online can lead to health anxiety and incorrect diagnoses. Photo: Getty Images

We’ve all done it. That strangely swollen toe, tingle in the throat or persistent headache. Simply type your symptoms into the online search bar and watch as the diagnoses appear. With the click of a button, innocent symptoms evolve into life-threatening illnesses, or maybe your scary medical dilemmas dissolve away, reassured by the information on your screen. 

In partnership with AXA – Global Healthcare, The Local looks at the risk and rise of the online self-diagnosis.

When your own research goes wrong

A quick look at Reddit uncovers hundreds of tales from medical professionals sharing the mishaps, and the occasional success, of online self-diagnosis. 

One father made a scene at a hospital demanding his daughter have an MRI, only to discover the ‘rash’ she had was a very non-life-threatening ink transfer, probably from her clothing. There was also a woman who searched her health symptoms online and discovered she was in labour (actually!), a man who had convinced himself he had gestational diabetes – a condition exclusive to pregnant women. And then there are the many tales of panicked people visiting their doctor, scared and anxious that they have cancer after doing some online research.

But for all the funny stories and relatable anecdotes, there are of course problems and real risks with diagnosing yourself from information online. 

Avoid a self-diagnosis mishap with a virtual doctor service

Help me, internet 

While the act of online self-diagnosis is not new, the role of online health information and the importance of virtual healthcare grew during the Covid-19 pandemic. People were encouraged to check their Covid symptoms at home, accessing all the information they needed via health authorities online. 

At the same time, the uncertainty around the virus and instructions to stay at home meant many people were unable to access health care, or avoided seeking it in-person. Why take a risk when you can open your laptop and search? 

The problem with this is threefold. You will either self-treat your self-diagnosis (which can be dangerous and do more harm than good). Or, think you are okay, when in fact, you need medical help. Option three involves overreacting to a condition that is not as bad as you thought, causing worry and stress. This can even lead to ‘cyberchondria’, which is when the internet searching of medical information and its associated worries about health becomes excessive. 

Reliable online help is out there. AXA’s global health plans will allow expats to speak to doctors in a range of languages via their Virtual Doctor Service

Virtual healthcare services are convenient but don’t have the risks of online symptom searching.

Mind health matters for expats

For those of us living abroad, the online self-diagnosis phenomenon is even more common. Jumping online is easier than navigating a foreign medical system, right? 

AXA – Global Healthcare recently conducted its biggest ever piece of research on mind health issues, in the wake of Covid-19. The findings can be read in their Mind Health Index

One of the most shocking findings of the research was that almost a third (28 percent) of mental health conditions among people living internationally had been self-diagnosed. 

The study surveyed 11,000 people from 11 countries and territories in Europe and Asia, with 13.5 percent of those participating being individuals who live abroad. The research acknowledged the unique set of mental health challenges faced by expats, who are away from support networks and the comforts of home. 

Depression and anxiety were the most common issues self-diagnosed by internet research among the non-natives surveyed. Worryingly, only 26 percent of internationals who self-diagnosed said their condition was being managed ‘well’ or ‘very well’. This is compared to 49 percent of those with a properly diagnosed condition. Quite clearly this shows the importance of talking to a medical professional about your mental health. 

AXA provides mental health and wellbeing healthcare as part of its global health plans

Overcome the barriers to seeking proper care

Navigating a foreign medical system can be daunting and off-putting, especially when you’re not feeling your best. Not knowing who to call or where to go is only going to exacerbate certain conditions, like anxiety, especially if you don’t yet speak the local language. 

So not understanding the medical landscape of where you live is an obvious reason to turn to online self diagnosing instead. Only around half (53 percent) of expats in AXA – Global Healthcare’s Mind Health Index said they knew how to access mental health help if they needed it. 

“It’s worrying that so many non-natives are using the internet to self-diagnose, but perhaps not surprising,” said Rebecca Freer, Head of Marketing at AXA – Global Healthcare. “Knowing how a local healthcare system works can be challenging, let alone knowing the sources of support you can trust. In contrast to these potential barriers to seeking help, the internet can seem to offer fast and credible sources of advice.”

While accessing healthcare can be one of the challenges of living overseas, overall the experience of life abroad should, and can, be a positive one. Though it’s increasingly common to research your symptoms online, don’t let the risks of a misdiagnosis or an unnecessary spiral of worry and fear impact you. Think again before consulting the internet with your health symptoms.

Get a quote for an insurance plan that suits you from AXA – Global Healthcare and access quality healthcare from their trusted networks

Virtual Doctor service provided by Teladoc Health
Mind Health service provided by Teladoc Health
AXA Global Healthcare (EU) Limited. Registered in Ireland number 630468. Registered Office: Wolfe Tone House, Wolfe Tone Street, Dublin 1. AXA Global Healthcare (EU) Limited is regulated by the Central Bank of Ireland.
AXA Global Healthcare (UK) Limited. Registered in England (No. 03039521). Registered Office: 20 Gracechurch Street, London, EC3V 0BG, United Kingdom. AXA Global Healthcare (UK) Limited is authorised and regulated in the UK by the Financial Conduct Authority.

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HEALTH

Ticks in Norway: Do I need to take a vaccine? 

The summer months in Norway mark tick season, where thousands of people are bitten each year. Although most people are usually fine, tick bites come with the risk of Lyme disease. Here's what you need to know about the tick vaccine. 

Ticks in Norway: Do I need to take a vaccine? 

The summer months in Norway mark tick season, where thousands of people are bitten each year. Although most people are usually fine, tick bites come with the risk of Lyme disease. Here’s what you need to know about the tick vaccine. 

Ticks, or flått, in Norway can be found mainly in the southeast and along coastal areas in the west, and as far north as Bodø. However, ticks can also be found further inland. 

They can be found in forests, meadows, and long grass, meaning the biggest risk is when you’re out in nature – especially hiking, camping, or berry-picking.

Ticks are active when the temperature is higher than around 5c, but are most common during summer. Tick season is roughly from April to September in Norway, with most bites occurring in summer.

The two main tick-borne diseases in Norway are Lyme disease and Tick-borne encephalitis (TBE).

Lyme disease (also called borreliosis) causes no symptoms in around half of all people who catch it. For others, it can cause skin redness, headaches, and pain and can attack the nervous system.

Around 25 percent of all ticks in Southern Norway are carriers infected with the Borrelia bacteria, according to The Norwegian National Advisory Unit on Tick-borne Diseases.

TBE is a viral brain infection, which can cause a range of symptoms, usually starting with typical flu-like symptoms and then developing to include nausea, dizziness, and in around a third of cases, severe problems. Symptoms usually appear around a week after the bite but can take longer. There is no cure, but it can be treated, and there is a vaccination too.

While ticks are found across Norway, ticks carrying TBE, according to the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, are mostly concentrated in Rogaland, Vestfold and Telemark, Adger and Viken. Around one percent of ticks in Norway carry TBE. 

Who should get a vaccine? 

Vaccinations are recommended for those living in areas with TBE-infested ticks and/or who spend a lot of time in forests. More specifically, the vaccine should be considered for children and adults in west-Agder, east-Agder, Telemark, Vestfold and Buskerud.

You get three doses within the first year, each one increasing the level of protection, another amount after three years and then will need top-ups every five years, every three years if you are over 60.

Because you need several doses to be fully protected, it’s recommended that you begin the vaccination programme well ahead of tick season. It’s also worth noting that you should receive the third dose before the next tick season starts if you receive your jabs mid-tick season. 

However, the incidence rate of TBE in Norway is low, meaning that in most cases, you won’t need to take a tick vaccine and can instead focus on preventative measures. 

If you are spending time in wooded areas with long grass, especially those with a high tick presence, take precautions like wearing long-sleeved clothing and tucking trousers into socks. Also, avoid brushing against long grasses by walking along the middle of the path where you can.

After returning home from a day out, you should check carefully for ticks and shower shortly after coming inside. This can give you the chance to remove them before they bite, for example, if you spot them on your clothes. Putting clothes in a tumble dryer for one hour should kill ticks.

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