We often hear that social networks can be good for emotional health by reconnecting us with old friends, helping us build professional contacts and countering isolation, but Italian doctors have reported a case where logging onto Facebook made an 18-year-old man hyperventilate.
The patient, whose asthma was well-controlled with steroid inhalers and Singulair pills, began having more asthma attacks when he logged onto Facebook and learned that his ex-girlfriend had un-friended him and friended "many new young men." Frustrated by being cut off from his former flame, the jilted boyfriend became her Facebook friend under a nickname and regained access to her profile picture.
However, the sight of her photo left him hyperventilating and short of breath, "which happened repeatedly" as he called up her profile, wrote Dr. Gennaro D'Amato, a respiratory and allergy specialist at the High Specialty Hospital A Cardarelli in Naples, Italy, in this week's issue of The Lancet.
In e-mails sent Thursday from Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, where he was traveling, D'Amato said that the case was unique because "there are not other descriptions of psychosomatic asthma induced by contact with Facebook."
With this particular patient, seeing his former girlfriend's photo and becoming aware of her contacts with men he saw as competitors for her attention "was a trigger factor of asthma."
D'Amato and colleagues from another Naples hospital and health centers in Prato, Italy, and Salerno, Italy, wrote that doctors advised the patient's worried Italian mama to have him measure his lung capacity before and after logging into Facebook.
"Indeed, 'post-Facebook' values were reduced, with a variability of more than 20 percent," they wrote.
Psychological stress is a known asthma trigger. In depressed asthmatics, stress can cause their autonomic nervous systems to tighten up their airways.
After ruling out other environmental and infectious factors that could affect this particular patient's airways, the doctors concluded that logging onto Facebook most likely triggered the stress that brought on the asthma attacks.
D'Amato and his co-authors suggested the case had broader implications for some of Facebook's more than 500 million active users: "Facebook, and social networks in general, could be a new source of psychological stress, representing a triggering factor for exacerbations in depressed asthmatic individuals."
D'Amato said the way to prevent such attacks is avoidance of the trigger "in susceptible subjects or to improve their reactions with [the] help of a psychologist."
On the advice of a psychiatrist, the Italian patient "resigned not to login to Facebook any longer and the asthma attacks stopped."
Dr. Karen L. Warman, an associate professor of clinical pediatrics at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, N.Y., who has studied and developed programs to address asthma among urban children, said the case demonstrated that Facebook activity can be a source of psychological stress.
"It seems that for this young man, instead of avoiding that stress, by logging on he was creating it for himself," she said.
Warman said the take-home message was simple: "If things create stress for you and they're avoidable, then you should avoid them."
D'Amato said that the heartbroken patient also might have been able to avoid the attacks if he took asthma drugs prophylactically before logging on to Facebook, much as patients with exercise-induced asthma can take medication before exerting themselves.
D'Amato said that the young man's stress and hyperventilation might also have occurred outside of cyberspace if he had encountered his ex-girlfriend on the street.
The computer screen the young man faced while logged on to Facebook has its own potential health consequences. Excessive staring at a computer screen has been linked to eye strain, dry eyes and blurred vision. And don't forget that for some people, flickering lights on the screen can bring on a migraine headache.