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What is illness anxiety disorder?

Illness anxiety disorder is a mental health disorder that can affect children. Children who have illness anxiety disorder worry a lot about being sick, even though they have no symptoms. Kids with illness anxiety disorder worry so much that it causes them a lot of stress and anxiety that get in the way of normal activities like school. They are not comforted by test results or doctors telling them that everything is fine.

Illness anxiety disorder is related to another condition called somatic symptom disorder. In somatic symptom disorder, the child worries a lot about a real but normal physical problem, like a headache or feeling tired. But in illness anxiety disorder, the child worries despite having no symptoms of sickness.

What are the symptoms of illness anxiety disorder?

Signs that a child might have illness anxiety disorder include:

  • Being certain that they are sick, even if they have no symptoms of illness
  • Constantly checking their body for signs of being sick
  • Being afraid of physical activities like sports because they think they will hurt themselves
  • Spending a lot of time reading about illnesses

Some kids with illness anxiety disorder will refuse to go to the doctor. That might be because they’re afraid of a bad diagnosis or because they think they are already too sick to help. Others might go to the doctor or nurse’s office a lot and even demand that the doctor diagnose the illness they believe they have.

Kids with illness anxiety disorder have so much anxiety about being sick that it gets in the way of normal life, including school and friendships. They aren’t faking their fear.

How is illness anxiety disorder treated?

Illness anxiety disorder is usually treated with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). In CBT, kids learn that their worries are just thoughts and not real things to be afraid of. They also learn how to recognize scary thoughts as they happen and ways to make them less scary.

Once a child has made progress with CBT, the therapist may have the child and their parents do another treatment that is called exposure and response prevention therapy. In this treatment, the therapist will ask the child to take small steps toward changing their behavior. For example, the child and therapist may set a goal that the child will not go to the nurse for one whole day. Parents can also learn how to react to the child’s worries in a more helpful way.

Sometimes, medication is used along with therapy if the child is very anxious. The most common medications for illness anxiety disorder are antidepressants, such as SSRIs.