We've all been there. There's just something about your headache that feels different. Maybe some pressure behind one eye - which is weird because the other one is fine. You might think, "I'd better Google that to see if that's something I should be worried about," and you look at your phone.
20 minutes later you're conviced you have a leaking meningeal sac and you need a CT scan.
It's called "asking Dr. Google," and with the increased ease in which it is to access the internet and search for information, it is no wonder that at least 60% of Americans use the internet for health information and at least 35% of Americans use internet searches to self-diagnose.
So just how harmless or harmful is it to search the internet for your symptoms?
Here are some tips that will help keep Dr. Google from causing any undue anxiety:
1. Don't trust everything you read on the internet.
Make sure your sources are from credible organizations who have an interest in providing advice that helps more than it hurts. Government agencies that were formed with the purpose of serving the healthcare community like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the World Health Organization (WHO) are often the best sources of information. "First, do no harm" is the motto at the heart of professional medicine, so it also makes sense to place more trust in reputable medical institutions like the Harvard Medical School, Cleveland Clinic, Johns Hopkins, or the Mayo Clinic.
Information to avoid will be found on sites that are looking to sell you something (phramaceuticals, homeopathic remedies, etc.) or provide you with anecdotal-based evidence to convince you of some miracle cure or prognosis.
Without a careful review of one's own health records, it's impossible to provide a diagnosis. It's often why the most reputable sources are the most frustrating because there's no definitive answer. If it seems too good to be true, it's probably not true and you should just call the doctor.
2. Don't trust that anything you read applies to you.
Google's VP and Chief Internet Evangelist Vinton Cerf once said, "The internet is a reflection of our society and that mirror is going to be reflecting what we see." In other words, if you're looking for justification that your symptoms indicate a certain prognosis, you'll likely find it in the first few results.
Want to prove that your skin rash is because you have cancer? Here's a credible source for that.
Maybe you have a real problem and should see a doctor but want an excuse to put it off? Read one of these and feel better in the morning.
The key again is to understand that only a trained medical professional can diagnose your symptoms and provide the proper treatment. Even if physicians are wrong sometimes, they are also your only hope for getting it right.
3. Make sure to get multiple opinions.
If you're one of those people who seeks a second opinion when seeing a doctor, you should definitely seek multiple opinions when using any online 'symptom checkers" to self-diagnose. Based on this study from the British Medical Journal, the correct diagnosis was the top result only 34 percent of the time across 23 online symptom checker websites. In the same study, nearly 60 percent had the correct diagnosis in the top 20 results.
4. Get off the internet and call your doctor.
The NCBI published a study about 'Cyberchondria and intolerance of uncertainty: examining when individuals experience health anxiety in response to Internet searches for medical information.' In the summary it highlighted that, "for some individuals, searching for medical information on the Internet is associated with an exacerbation of health anxiety."
In other words, if you're already really stressed about your health problems, Googling it might even make matters worse.
Dr. Google isn't real. Your actual doctor is. Call them.