What You Need To Know If You’re Trying To Self-Diagnose Using The Internet

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In today’s technology-driven world, it’s never been easier to get information in the blink of an eye. It doesn’t matter if you google “hearing loss” or “benefits of daycare” or “emotional support animals,” you can literally find information in seconds. In fact, Google estimates that it processes 40,000 searches per second which adds up to more than three billion a day.

But sometimes those Google searches can be a double-edged sword, particularly when it comes to seeking out medical information. Believe it not, not everything you read on the Internet is true.

Picture this scenario: it’s late at night and you’re sick. You’re hacking up a lung from coughing, you’ve got a fever, you’re feeling chilled and you’re blowing your nose constantly. Bottom line: you feel awful and you turn to the Internet to and research what you might have come down with and what home remedies you can use to make yourself better.

But instead of instantly finding easy answers to your queries, you search your symptoms and find yourself reading one web page after another. While many common sense articles might tell you that you have the flu or a respiratory infection, other articles are more concerning as you begin to see all of your symptoms match up with more severe issues like infections and even cancer.

As helpful as sites like WebMD might be when it comes to doing your own medical research, you may drive yourself crazy reading about how your coughs and sneezes are signs of cancer. It’s often said that just about any medical symptom searched online these days is invariably linked to cancer. Of course, once you visit your primary care doctor or an urgent care clinic, your doctor is likely going to let out an exasperated sigh and tell you to stop trying to self-diagnose online.

If you’ve been in the scenario described above, you’re not alone. It was estimated that in 2012, 72% of respondents to a survey said they’d searched online for health-related information within the past year and it’s likely that that number has grown since then. While it can be helpful to check symptoms for common, everyday, easily-treated ailments, the growth of self-diagnosis has continually frustrated physicians. Why? Patients come into a doctor visit thinking they have all the answers and this may cause some of them to doubt a doctor’s diagnosis, if said diagnosis is different than what they read online.

Finding information you can trust

If you can’t help yourself from searching online, you’re probably wondering what kinds of information you can trust when it comes to health. Be advised that there is a lot of good, help medical information online, but there is also some bad, or misinformed information. Knowing the difference can make all the difference. After all, you’re trying to get better from whatever illness you have, not make yourself sicker with worry.

If you’re doing medical research online, pretend you’re a detective. You may smirk, but it’s actually very helpful when it comes to finding the best information. The easiest place to start is to look for the sites of well-known medical institutions; think medical schools, hospitals and professional health organizations.

As you search online, perhaps the most important thing you can do is to browse more than one site. Sites like WebMD can be helpful in some situations, but it’s best to “shop around” and browse all kinds of sites, if only to verify specific information across multiple sites. Looking at one sight and confirming suspicions about what you think you have might lead you to assume you have some incurable disease when really all you need is a Z-pack.

Remember to pay attention to web addresses as you do research too. Sites that end in “.edu” or “.gov” or “.org” are reputable sites run by universities or government agencies, so they are generally trustworthy.

As you read and do research on adult braces or bariatric surgery or fitness classes or whatever you’re looking at, take a look at who wrote the article. Even if you’re trying to self-diagnose for something like the flu or bronchitis, you need to find information that’s written by doctors, nurses and other experienced and licensed health professionals.

Along with the other, look for references at the end of any pages you read. You can put more trust in articles from studies and professional journals than some run-of-the-mill page written by someone without medical experience.

Another good think to look for on reputable medical sites is contact information. If you have a question about something you read, it never hurts to follow up with employees of a medical organization, especially if you can’t immediately put a finger on your medical issues.

There are literally millions of pages of information online, but as you read it’s helpful to check the date of the information you read. The last thing you need is to read something about a remedy or a medicine that’s now that to be outdated or ineffective for the symptoms you have.

As you do your research, it’s probably best to stay away from discussion forums and chat rooms. Why? You may find very misleading information there and let’s be honest: what one person experiences when they have the flu or the measles or strep throat isn’t going to be universally true for everyone.

Things to pay attention to

As you research, it’s important to absorb and thoroughly analyze everything you read. Keep in mind that personal stories and anecdotes aren’t gospel. Remember that symptoms and treatments aren’t universal. If you want to seek out advice from anyone on a certain kind of illness, it’s best to talk to close and friends and family rather than relying on the testimony of strangers online.

You need to also keep your senses up. If something sounds too good to be true, it most likely is. If you come across something that is promoted as an “instant care” or a “quick fix,” there might be catch so it’s best to be careful. This is especially true when it comes to medications. If you have pre-existing medical conditions and very specific restrictions on medications, the last thing you want to do is take something that’s not prescribed by your doctor and could do harmful long-term damage.

You also want to be careful about giving out your personal information to websites that aren’t secure. The last thing you want (on top of being sick) is to fall victim to identify theft.

Sites you can trust

So after all this, you’re probably wondering where to start to find quality medical information. Here are a few reputable sites you can check out as you search online:

  • Healthfinder.gov
  • CDC.gov
  • FamilyDoctor.org
  • Heart.org
  • Diabetes.org
  • NIHSeniorHealth.gov
  • HealthyChildren.org

Many of the sites listed above offer good general health information for children, adults and seniors and a few of them offer specific information on specific illnesses (like heart disease and diabetes) and what can be done to treat and prevent those diseases.

Why you should see a primary care doctor

Studies have shown that about two thirds of adults in the United States are overweight or obese. While maintaining a healthy weight can help control your cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar, the fact of the matter is that there are many illnesses and diseases associated with a person’s weight.

For that and many other reasons, it’s beneficial to get in to see your primary care doctor on a regular basis. As previously mentioned, trying to self-diagnose an unknown medical ailment can result in a lot of stress, overthinking and even misdiagnosis.

Whether you’re already set up with a primary care doctor or you need to get set up with one, there are many benefits to seeing one:

In our hustle-and-bustle, everyone likes convenience, especially when it comes to medical care. By visiting a primary care doctor, you get access to screenings and different kinds of preventative care as well as care for chronic care conditions and acute care for minor problems.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of having a primary care doctor is being seen and treated by someone who knows the ins-and-outs of your medical history. Whether you’re dealing with coughs and fevers or more severe issues, having a primary care physician means you have an invaluable medical resource in your corner. This can be invaluable not only because he or she knows all about your medical history, but also because you don’t have recite your family’s medical history or medication list or vaccination history every time you get seen by a doctor.

Another benefit of primary care is communication. When you visit your doctor, visits are usually more productive because, again, you don’t have to start over from square one. It’s also easier to talk with primary care physicians about sensitive issues because you’re both familiar with each other.

Primary care visits are also good for preventative maintenance. Based on previous visits, examinations and medical history, your doctor can make recommendations to keep you healthy. They can also determine whether you have an increased risk of certain diseases such as heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes among others. Aside from those, primary care visits can also detect certain kinds of health issues earlier and help you either prevent or treat them right away.

Figuring out when to go to the hospital or doctor

With so much information available online, you can theoretically self-diagnose yourself as much as you want. But the simple fact is that in some cases you may not get straight answers to your questions or you’ll get wrong answers to your questions i.e. you’ve got cancer based on the strep throat symptoms you typed into a search engine.

Another reality is that there are times when it’s not prudent to lay around and google “cool sculpting” or “should I go to urgent care?” or “find a maternity center.” There are times when you’re dealing with a serious medical issue and rather than trying to play doctor at home, you need to get to the hospital right away. Simply put, there are instances where time is of the essence and no amount of Internet research is going to solve your problem.

If you’re wondering when you need to get the ER right away, the following signs are usually dead giveaways:

  • Shortness of breath and difficulty breathing
  • Pressure in your chest or chest pains
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Severe burns
  • Numbness in parts of body such as the arms, legs, or face
  • Food poisoning
  • Bleeding you can’t stop
  • Abdominal pain, especially if you’re vomiting
  • Prolonged diarrhea or vomiting
  • Severe headaches

The bottom line is this: if you’re not sure what’s wrong with you, the best move is to make an appointment with your primary care doctor or go to the ER right away. If you know what to look for and how to react when it comes to self-diagnosis, then research, albeit carefully. But if you’re experiencing foreign symptoms and you find 10-12 different answers online about what could be wrong with you, get medical attention as soon as possible.

Summing it up

When it comes to your health, it’s best not to roll the dice. After all, if you were having car troubles, you’d take your car straight to the mechanic. If you were having foundation issues or rodent and insect issues within your house, you’d call the appropriate contractors without a second thought. Rather than leaving things to chance, get the best information from the best source: a hospital, a doctor’s office or an urgent clinic.

If you’re going to do medical research online, proceed carefully and make sure to seek out reputable and relevant information. Without it, you’re going to drive yourself crazy and if you read enough, you’re going to find out that even though you have a cold or chicken pox or pneumonia, the Internet is telling you that you should be dead already.

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