Searching for Symptoms Online: Beware of Dr. Internet

The Internet can be a powerful tool for health awareness, but when searching symptoms leads to a snap self-diagnosis, it may do more harm than good

Credit: iStock

When searching for possible symptoms online, try not to assume the worst

The ocean of health-related information – and misinformation – on the Internet has empowered many Canadians to terrify themselves with just a few clicks of a mouse

Type any symptom into an online search engine and you’ll often find yourself rewarded with the most chilling diagnoses: a cough suddenly becomes lung cancer; a twitch becomes Parkinson’s disease. 

When it comes to your health, it’s smart to be your own advocate and to be well informed. In that vein, when thoughtfully used, reputable websites can be a valuable resource for learning about healthy living, researching a particular health condition or preparing for a doctor’s appointment.

It can also be reassuring to chat online with people who’ve had experiences similar to your own. However, if you don’t approach online medical information with a critical eye, Dr. Internet can be unsettling or even panic-inducing, especially for those who already suffer from anxiety or hypochondria. For some, even reading about a condition can trigger obsessive thoughts and a feeling of oncoming symptoms.

Here are some tips to help you stay on the constructive side of online medical research:

Use Critical Judgment with Online Health Sites

Research has shown that most people who research health subjects online do not analyze the validity of the source. Ask yourself: Is the site managed or sanctioned by a government or professional health organization? How old is the information? Can you be certain the source of the information is valid or correctly represented?

Chat forums are a community, not an authority. It can be helpful to discuss health matters online with people who have had similar experiences, but remember that all that chat is anonymous, and that each post is personal, anecdotal, and not necessarily applicable to you.

Don’t Assume the Worst

Remember that many conditions, both minor and serious, share similar symptoms, and several serious illnesses that frequently appear on medical sites are, in fact, very rare. 
Don’t obsess. If you find yourself compulsively researching every creak and ache, step away from the computer for a while. Work to reduce your anxiety with exercise, meditation or positive self-talk. If obsessive thoughts persist, seek help from a mental health professional.

Talk to Your Doctor

Discuss your findings with your doctor before taking on undue worry or dangerously attempting to treat yourself for a condition you may not even have.

Originally published in Wellness Matters, Canada Wide Media’s quarterly newsletter on health and wellness.