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To Google or Not To Google: When to Research Your Symptoms Online

Dr. Kristen Mark

Written by Kristen Mark, Ph.D., associate professor in the University of Kentucky College of Education’s Department of Kinesiology and Health Promotion. The department offers a certificate and bachelor’s and doctoral degree options in Health Promotion.

We all dread the first sign of illness. Is it a cold or the flu? Sore throat or strep throat? These conditions require a medical diagnosis, but going to the doctor requires taking time off work or school and often involves a co-pay, both of which can be hard on working families. At the first sign of illness, it’s tempting to take to the internet to decide whether or not to go to the doctor.

We have all done it – tried to Google our symptoms and self-diagnose. While Dr. Google can never replace your primary care provider, it can be helpful to at least know how to tell the difference between accurate and inaccurate information online.

Look at the source. Look for websites that include .gov, .edu or .org in the address; these sites are verified government, educational or nonprofit organizations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Mayo Clinic are examples of unbiased, reputable sources for health information. If the source is a lifestyle magazine or website, or if it comes from social media that doesn’t reference a verified source, consider that information with a grain of salt.

Examine the credentials. Is the person who wrote the article a licensed medical professional? Or if the article was written by a journalist, do they include direct quotes from an expert in the field? Beware of advice from people without a medical background, or if the site is an advertisement for a treatment or product.

Check the date. Like the over-the-counter medication in your medicine cabinet, health information can be outdated and ineffective. New research, technology and drugs are changing the way we treat illnesses, and you want to be sure you have the most current information.

Too good to be true? Does the site promise fast weight loss or miracle cure? Those quick fixes can be detrimental to your health, so if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Relying on false or misleading information on the internet can have a negative impact on your health. Sometimes, the suggested “remedies” can be not only ineffective, but harmful. Searching your symptoms online can delay a real diagnosis and treatment. For example, antiviral medications can be effective at alleviating flu symptoms, but only if they are taken at first signs of illness.

The internet can be a wonderful resource that provides information about how to lead a healthy lifestyle, but only if you know where to look and how to distinguish what is accurate from what is inaccurate. With so many sources, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by information. Your primary health care provider should be your first stop and they can recommend online resources specific to your health and history.