Merck Manual

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Illness Anxiety Disorder


Joel E. Dimsdale

, MD, University of California, San Diego

Reviewed/Revised Aug 2022

Illness anxiety disorder is preoccupation with and fear of having or acquiring a serious disorder. Diagnosis is confirmed when fears and symptoms (if any) persist for 6 months despite reassurance after a thorough medical evaluation. Treatment includes establishing a consistent, supportive physician-patient relationship; cognitive-behavioral therapy and serotonin reuptake inhibitors may help.

Illness anxiety disorder (previously called hypochondriasis or hypochondria, terms that have been abandoned because of their pejorative connotation) most commonly begins during early adulthood and appears to occur equally among men and women.

The patient's fears may derive from misinterpreting nonpathologic physical symptoms or normal bodily functions (eg, borborygmi, abdominal bloating and crampy discomfort, awareness of heartbeat, sweating).

Symptoms and Signs of Illness Anxiety Disorder

Patients with illness anxiety disorder are so preoccupied with the idea that they are or might become ill that their illness anxiety impairs social and occupational functioning or causes significant distress. Patients may or may not have physical symptoms, but if they do, their concern is more about the possible implications of the symptoms than the symptoms themselves (eg, their stomach discomfort itself is less distressing to them than the possibility it might be cancer).

Some patients examine themselves repeatedly (eg, looking at their throat in a mirror, checking their skin for lesions). They are easily alarmed by new somatic sensations. Some patients visit physicians frequently (care-seeking type); others rarely seek medical care (care-avoidant type).

The course is often chronic—fluctuating in some, steady in others. Some patients recover.

Diagnosis of Illness Anxiety Disorder

  • Clinical evaluation

The diagnosis of illness anxiety disorder is based on criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5-TR), including the following:

  • The patient is preoccupied with having or acquiring a serious illness.

  • The patient has no or minimal somatic symptoms.

  • The patient is highly anxious about health and easily alarmed about personal health issues.

  • The patient repeatedly checks health status or maladaptively avoids doctor appointments and hospitals.

  • The patient has been preoccupied with illness for 6 months, although the specific illness feared may change during that time period.

  • Symptoms are not better accounted for by depression or another mental disorder.

Treatment of Illness Anxiety Disorder

  • Sometimes serotonin reuptake inhibitors or cognitive-behavioral therapy

Patients can benefit from having a trustful relationship with a caring, reassuring physician. If symptoms are not adequately relieved, patients may benefit from a psychiatric referral while they continue under the care of the primary physician.

Treatment with serotonin reuptake inhibitors may be helpful, as may cognitive-behavioral therapy.

NOTE: This is the Professional Version. CONSUMERS: View Consumer Version
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