After months of the big freeze, spring's finally here and hopefully those winter coughs and sniffles will soon be a thing of the past.

But for many people, the warmer weather will not stop them from worrying about their health.

After pornography, health is reportedly now the second most searched for topic on the internet.

But as we increasingly turn to computers rather than our GPs for diagnosis, a new trend has been identified by experts: cyberchondria.

If you're one of those people who frequently looks up their symptoms online and then panics at the diagnosis, or rather 'search results', it's possible that you're displaying all the hallmarks of a cyberchondriac.

There have always been hypochondriacs, those who fear they have a particular condition despite reassurance to the contrary, but, says psychiatrist and member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Dr Victoria Lukats, the internet can make the situation worse.

"It's easier to look up symptoms on the internet, whereas in the past you would have had to go to the library or the doctor," she says.

Although cyberchondria is not a medical term, the obsessive searching for symptoms online is a form of 'health anxiety', the umbrella term for conditions like hypochondria.

"It's human nature to worry but it becomes a condition or disorder if it's a preoccupation, if it starts to take over your life. That's the bottom line," says Lukats.

"With health anxiety problems, the more reassurance people seek, the worse it can be. They're only reassured for a few minutes and then they feel worse again and it turns into a vicious circle. So if you're looking things up on the internet all the time, it actually feeds into that cycle."

"The average person develops a new symptom every six days, so having a niggle is not abnormal, it's the interpretation of those symptoms that's the difference."

Can you trust the web?

One of the main problems that cyberchondriac's face is that the web's not always reliable.

A simple search for 'headache' on Google, will produce links to brain tumours.

In reality, only one in 50,000 of us suffer from brain tumours, but the internet could make you believe otherwise.

A recent study by Microsoft demonstrated that 25% of the documents thrown up by a web search for 'headache' pointed to brain tumours as a possible cause.

As many as 8 in 10 of us consult 'Dr Google' for health information, but worryingly 75% don't check the source or the date the information was created, a recent study showed.

Self diagnosis

There's no doubt the internet has transformed the way we approach our own health, you can book appointments online, check symptoms and it's even used by doctors themselves.

The site  was set up by GPs wanting members of the public to get access to the same high quality information they were giving to patients in surgery. The site now gets over 1 million visitors a week including those looking for advice about symptoms and conditions or discussing issues such as drug side effects in forums.

Dr Gordon Brooks, Patient UK's site director, says: "People have always been able to look up things in health books but they go out of date. Putting information online allows you keep things immediately up to date."

While authoritative health websites are not an alternative to going to see your doctor, they are being seen as one way to relieve the pressure on the NHS.

A recent report by the doctor-led Self-Care Campaign showed common ailments account for nearly one fifth of GPs' workload.

"But the danger is people will come across unreliable sites that simply increase anxiety levels rather than provide help," says Dr Brooks.

"They might find the wrong information because there's no quality control over what's on search engines on the net. They're quick but it's not easy to tell whether the information is up to date, reliable and unbiased.

"There's a danger of people putting a symptom in and the results suggesting there's something seriously wrong with you."

But Dr Brooks doesn't believe we're a nation of cyberchondriacs quite yet.

"People are sophisticated, I think they read around the subject and don't immediately think, 'Oh my God, I've got that awful condition'.

"We put the real-life explanations for symptoms at the top of Patient UK searches, rather than web scaremonger rarities.

"If you type in 'headache' it will tell you about the common causes and how to deal with them while alerting you to warning signs of anything more serious. People actually search for advice on things like chicken pox, back pain, indigestion, high blood pressure, depression and diabetes rather than a odd twinge that might prove fatal.

If you have symptoms you're concerned about, nothing can replace a chat with your GP.

While more than half (53%) of us admit to self-diagnosing our illnesses after looking online, according to National Friendly's research, it is impossible to do, says Dr Paul Cundy, the British Medical Association advisor on internet medicine.

He had a patient who was convinced she had to have Prozac.

"She said, 'I've diagnosed myself as being depressed and I need this particular drug'. It was a really difficult case, I almost had to refuse her. Anyone claiming they can diagnose over the internet is wrong."

Dr Cundy does encourage his patients to look up illnesses online, but says, 'Be sensible'.

"I've dealt with two consultations this morning where patients had found something on the internet and I've said, 'No that's rubbish, you can just ignore it'.

"If you bring in 20 pages of print-outs, that's fine, the doctor will look at it, but some of it will be good and some of it will be bad."

What to do

Being anxious can often actually make us ill and the body mimics the symptoms we're scared of. So try to relax and they may go away.

But if you can't stop Googling and panicking about what you find, you could be suffering from health anxiety, so go and see your GP, advises Dr Cundy.

"It's not so much an internet issue as an issue about the habits the patient is getting into. If it wasn't the internet, they'd be in a library or buying health magazines.

"The doctor should try and alter the patient's habits, and teach them not to be anxious about their health, but it doesn't always work."

If you have health anxiety, your doctor could also refer you for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) - although the provision of such preventative resources can be rather thin on the ground.

"The basis of CBT is that people are meant to try and resolve their own anxiety themselves, using relaxation techniques and cognitive techniques rather than asking for constant reassurance.

"The patient might keep a diary of how and when their health anxieties crop up and do an experiment where they say, 'Next time I worry, I'm not going to seek reassurance' and they might find they feel better when they don't seek reassurance. Obviously if people do have a real symptom, they shouldn't ignore it."

Anything that will distract you from your health anxiety like exercise and hobbies can also help, adds Lukats.

"Relaxation techniques are good as well. Anything that makes you feel more anxious will make you worse, so reduce alcohol consumption, cut out illegal drugs, get plenty of sleep and cut out caffeine."

Safe searching

If you are genuinely worried about your health, make sure you visit a reliable site.

Look for the Department of Health's Information Standard logo displayed on sites like Patient UK, which shows it has been accredited as a provider of high quality health information.

"My advice would be to look around, find sites that appear to be up to date, reliable, written by the right people and have the right ethic behind them of why they're doing it. Once you've found sites that appear to be good, then bookmark and use them," says Dr Brooks.

Tried and trusted medical sites

NHS Direct - This site has handy pictures of the body, and an A-Z of illnesses, so you can choose where it hurts and search for the cause.

Patient UK - Set up by doctors who are skilled in explaining complex medical topics in a straight forward way, this site has a comprehensive set of info leaflets, drug information, support groups, forums and you can even book an appointment with your GP.

Medhunt - This is run by the Health on the Net Foundation (HON) to pool results from trusted websites.

WebMD - Boots has teamed up with this US site, to provide full, expert health info, plus it has a handy symptom checker.