Can virtual friends give you asthma? The question is put in an unusual case study reported on Friday by the medical journal The Lancet.
Italian doctors describe how a 18-year-old man with a history of asthma suddenly experienced bouts of breathlessness during the summer months, when he was normally free from these symptoms.
The teen's worried mother learned that he was depressed after breaking up with his girlfriend, who had deleted him from her list of "friends" on Facebook while "friending" lots of new young men.
Using a new nickname on Facebook, the young man succeeding in becoming her "friend" once more and in finally gaining access to her picture on her Facebook profile.
Intrigued, the doctors asked the patient to wear an airflow mask, measuring respiratory flow, whenever he accessed Facebook.
Sure enough, his breathing volume dramatically plunged as soon as he logged in, sometimes by more than 20 percent. After getting help from a psychiatrist, the patient determined not to login to Facebook any more -- and the asthma attacks stopped.
The patient had no other physical problems or anything else untoward in his medical history, say the investigators.
They conclude it was the stress of Facebook login that triggered the asthma: the patient literally choked at the prospect of seeing and communicating with his ex.
The case is reported in a letter by five doctors, led by Gennaro D'Amato of the High Speciality Hospital in Naples.
The authors say the case could be a useful tip for doctors who want to explore mystery cases of wheezing and breathlessness among young patients, for whom social networking is fast taking the place of real-life relationships, with all their ups and downs.
"Facebook, and social networks in general, could be a new source of psychological stress, representing a triggering factor for exacerbations in depressed asthmatic individuals," says the letter.
"Considering the high prevalence of asthma, especially among young people, we suggest that this type of trigger be considered in the assessment of asthma exacerbations."