Many of us have used the internet at least once to investigate symptoms in order to pin- point a diagnosis of our illness.  However, in doing this, there is the risk of jumping to the worst possible conclusions about your underlying condition.

If at the first signs of a chesty cough you are Googling “tuberculosis symptoms” or “lymphoma symptoms” when your glands are swollen, you could be a Cyberchondriac. However, you are not alone in your concern.

A report written in 2013 has revealed that an American spends on average an hour a week searching the internet for health information.

Many of these people are carrying out targeted searches in efforts to make a self diagnosis of the cause of their particular ailment.

Search engines can provide misleading information.

This could be a side effect of the media making us all too aware of our state of health. However, it is  natural to wonder about the cause of whatever is making you ill, but the internet is not the place to go to find this information. The internet is highly sensational and searching for causes of headaches is likely to present you with a number of the more severe causes like brain tumours, infection and haemorrhage. In a study conducted by Microsoft, the probability that the word “brain tumour” would come up in response to the search term “headache” was 0.26, which is the same probability that “caffeine withdrawal” was offered as a diagnosis.

Photo credit: theanthonyryan / Foter / CC BY-SA

Photo credit: theanthonyryan / Foter / CC BY-SA

This could also simply be down to the nature of how search engines work: pages on cancer may get more hits than pages on topics such as “eye strain” or “caffeine withdrawal” and so these appear higher on the lists of search results. As a result, the person doing the searching is likely to become convinced that a brain tumour is the most likely cause of their headache simply because of the number of sources they have been presented with on the topic of cancer. However, the volume of results is not an indicator of the prevalence of disease.

Another reason to be cautious of what you read on the internet is because you do not know who has written that information. There can be no real validation of their credibility to hand out medical advice.

A headache by no means could indicate that you have a brain tumour. Doctors have to perform a number of serological samples to identify particular “antigenic markers” in addition to imaging tests before the underlying cause of any ailment can be proposed.

Making a diagnosis simply by your outward symptoms  is not enough to even hint towards the cause of your headache.

Despite all this, it is always a positive thing to take interest in your health and to be vigilant for signs of when you feel something is wrong. Just try to use your own judgement for what is the more probable cause of your headache. If you haven’t had your usual 6 cups of coffee that day then perhaps this could point towards the most likely diagnosis.

Self  diagnosis can lead to unnecessary anxiety.

There are occasions where the internet can direct towards the right diagnosis however, much of the time this can just lead towards anxiety. In many cases individuals will agonise over a health problem they *may* have without going to a medical professional who can provide a definitive answer for them. This harks back to the previous TIP article on “over the counter” genetic testing. These unreliable screening kits can lead to inconclusive indications of a person’s likelihood of developing a medical condition, which can lead to undue stress and concern. In a similar way, self- diagnosing via the internet can lead to someone jumping to conclusions and accepting the worst possible diagnosis without any accurate confirmation.

It’s tempting to do your own research but leave it to the professionals.

Photo credit: COMSALUD / Foter / CC BY

Photo credit: COMSALUD / Foter / CC BY

There are dangers to acting on this self -made diagnosis where the life style changes made might end up causing more harm than good or you end up spending unnecessary money on non- professional treatments.

It seems that it’s best not to skip the doctor’s office. Although that sore throat is unlikely to be a harbinger of something awful, it’s best to seek out a professional opinion for a confirmed diagnosis. This way there is no risk of causing yourself undue stress and there is a possibility of receiving proper treatment, right away

However, if you really can’t resist doing your own research, try these websites:

Patient.co.uk – this site is run by doctors where you can read leaflets on the condition and even seek medical support.

NHS Direct – This can help you narrow down the cause of your condition via a series of symptom checkers. You can also be referred to a GP

Lab tests online UK– This is written by practising lab doctors and scientists. This site can help you better understand the causes of medical conditions and the potential tests you could receive with a professional diagnosis. This site is also available as an app for smartphones.

With the wealth of information available on the internet these days it is very tempting to do your own search however, it’s best not to worry too much and to leave it to the professionals.

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Brigitte Sarkó

Naomi Rune

Naomi Rune

I am currently studying in my final year at Royal Holloway, University of London for a Bachelors in Biomedical science. I am deeply fascinated by my subject and continually in awe of where research has taken us. On my year studying abroad in America I was very fortunate to attend a number of research symposiums where I I had the opportunity to meet researchers and ask them about their work. This experience has inspired me to become involved in research myself.
The research industry unfortunately is highly money driven and too often there are reports of dishonesty and injustices within the field. I am always moved to report on these, to bring them to light in hopes that change will happen.