The Grammarphobia Blog

“Munchausen syndrome by proxy”

Q: Is there a word for someone who is hypochondriacal about others? In case that isn’t clear, I’ll give you an example. An unexplained bruise can be a symptom of leukemia. But if someone interprets every bruise on her child as a symptom of leukemia, is there a word for that?

A: Someone who’s unreasonably or obsessively worried about the health of another may have a disorder that’s sometimes called “hypochondriasis by proxy.”  For example, maternal anxiety could lead a mother to exaggerate her perception of her child as sick.   

This shouldn’t be confused with another disorder, “Munchausen syndrome by proxy.” In this case, a caregiver (usually a parent) calls attention to himself or herself by imagining (or actually causing) illness in a child.

[Update, July 24, 2014: A reader writes, “Munchausen syndrome by definition involves deliberate acts of deception, whereas hypochondria (the PC term is ‘health anxiety’) is characterized by sincere but unreasonable health concerns. In other words, MSBP sufferers pretend that their healthy children are sick or deliberately make their children sick. Parents who suffer from health anxiety by proxy honestly believe that their healthy children are sick. MSBP is almost always associated with child abuse, so it is a term that must be used carefully.”]