For many of us, it’s an ingrained habit that we no longer even think about: We feel sick to our stomach, our shoulder is stiff, or we have a sniffle — and we go straight to Google, typing our symptoms into a search engine to see what might be the matter.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In today’s day and age, we’re privileged to have a wealth of information at our fingertips, and it can be helpful to learn about health and the human body online.
But doing health research on the internet can be dangerous, too. You might come across false information, or scare yourself by reading about serious conditions that you don’t actually have.
Here’s what you need to know about the best (and not-so-best) ways to do health research on the internet.
The dangers of researching your health online
Over 80% of American adults have looked online for health-related information. If you do the same, two of the biggest dangers to beware of are false information, and the temptation to diagnose yourself.
How to spot false information
Health misinformation is a serious problem. It might lead people to make decisions that could have dangerous consequences for their health. The U.S. Surgeon General suggests the following steps to help determine if information is accurate:
- Check public health department websites, like the CDC, for information about the claim that’s being made.
- Ask a doctor or nurse for more information.
- Type the claim into a search engine to see if it’s been verified by a credible source.
- Look at the website’s “About Us” page to learn more and determine if you can trust them.
It’s also helpful to figure out who pays for the website. If a certain business pays for or sponsors a site, the health information on that site might be favorable to that business and its products, regardless of whether the product is actually safe or helpful. Any website that has advertisements should clearly mark the ads as such — ads that look like neutral health information are a red flag.
If you are unsure whether a piece of information is accurate, don’t share it with anybody else.
Why you shouldn’t self-diagnose
Self-diagnosis is the process of deciding that you have a certain medical condition. For instance, you might Google “causes of nausea;” read about peptic ulcers; and diagnose yourself with an ulcer — all without consulting a medical professional.
Self-diagnosis is generally not a good idea. If you think you know that you have an ulcer, you might not see your doctor for confirmation — and if you end up not having an ulcer, but having something else instead, you won’t be receiving the correct treatment. You also may have trouble believing your doctor if they give you a different diagnosis. In the end, both you and your doctor waste time and money, with real danger posed to your health.
Spending too much time reading health information online can increase your levels of stress, anxiety, and fear.
In some cases, this can even evolve into something called “cyberchondria” — a term used to describe someone experiencing high amounts of health anxiety because of searching for symptoms on the internet.
Tips on safely navigating health research
One helpful tip for staying smart online is to check the date that an article or webpage was published. Scientists are constantly making new discoveries that change how we approach health and medicine. If information is several years old, it may no longer be accurate.
Make sure your biases aren’t influencing your judgment. Your own beliefs might cause you to favor information that aligns with your own perspective.
You can fact check health claims by using reliable sources such as:
- MEDLINEplus and MEDLINEplus Evaluating Health Information
- National Institutes of Health
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- Mayo Clinic
- Cleveland Clinic
- Harvard Health
Health websites sponsored by federal government agencies are the safest place to start. You can also use websites from large hospitals or academic medical institutions. The list above is simply a starting point.
If you live with a chronic illness and think a new symptom may be related, use a reliable website based around your diagnosis. For example, people who live with rheumatoid arthritis can visit the American College of Rheumatology.
When to see a doctor
Some symptoms need immediate medical care. These include:
- Chest pain
- Muscle weakness or paralysis
- Severe pain or severe burn
- Difficulty breathing
- Changes in vision or hearing
- Head injury
In situations where you’re experiencing symptoms like these, go straight to your nearest emergency room.
In other cases, urgent care may be more appropriate. If you’re having symptoms that aren’t as serious, but are impacting your daily life or quickly getting worse — like pain, lumps, or abnormal bleeding — consider going to urgent care.
Symptoms that are not as serious as the examples listed above can generally wait until your primary care doctor’s earliest appointment. You can also call your doctor to ask for guidance on where you should go. Most offices have a doctor on call at all times. He or she is there to answer your questions and point you in the right direction.
What to remember
If you use the internet to learn about health, don’t believe any one website at face value; check your sources before sharing information or taking action. You should also talk with your doctor before making any changes in your healthcare.
Bottom line? It’s okay to consume health information on the internet. Just don’t let it consume you.