How to research your health symptoms online without freaking out
Whether you’re looking for a new brunch spot or researching office organization, chances are you turn straight to the internet — the first line of research for so many aspects of our lives. It makes perfect sense that it’s also the place we would go to research health symptoms or a new diagnosis.
Just be wary of falling too deep into an internet rabbit hole. Three-quarters of Americans use the internet to find health information, and they access it in a variety of ways: podcasts, social media, news sites, and more. Yet, excessive searching for medical information can lead to increasing levels of health anxiety, according to a 2020 study published in Comprehensive Psychiatry. There’s even a term for internet-induced health anxiety: cyberchondria.
We spoke to local medical experts to find out how to search your symptoms without giving yourself a nervous breakdown. Take note for the next time you head straight to Dr. Google.
Online symptom search
“I have a lot of patients who have Googled something and then come in with those results,” says Evan Sirois, DO, an internal medicine physician with Northwest Community Healthcare in Mount Prospect. “Everything they’ve typed into Google says they might have brain cancer, but for a vast majority, it’s thankfully muscle tension causing headaches.”
When it comes to seeking why you’re experiencing symptoms, consider the source, Sirois says.
If you’re starting with an online search before heading to your doctor, opt for a symptom checker. Start with sites such as familydoctor.org, major medical providers such as Cleveland Clinic or Mayo Clinic, or the National Library of Medicine’s MedlinePlus.
If you’re looking to dive past a list of symptoms and into the latest research, some standouts for credible medical research include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Daily Med, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
When searching online, Jyoti Patel, MD, medical director of thoracic oncology and assistant director for clinical research at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University, recommends looking for websites that:
- End in .org, .edu, .net, or .gov.
- Professional medical societies produce.
- Have an editorial board.
- Feature content experts or content reviewed by experts.
- Are free of commercial biases.
A social media group or a blog is not the best place to start. But once you know your diagnosis, these outlets can eventually serve as good support groups, Sirois says.
If you have health anxiety, start with a doctor. Get checked out to find your symptoms’ root cause. Then, conduct further research once you have a diagnosis. View your doctor as your advocate, supporting you with years of education, experience, and knowledge.
Interpreting medical results
With patient portals, test results can come in fast, sometimes even before your doctor has a chance to look at them. But the context from your doctor matters, Patel says. That context can mean the difference between understanding and panic. If you choose to Google results before speaking with your doctor, use trusted websites; don’t just click on whatever websites pop up first.
“There are consequences of the misinformation that is so easily spread on the Internet,” Patel says. “Empower yourself with education, but be strategic.”
And remember that everyone’s symptoms and diagnoses reflect that individual’s experience, not necessarily everyone’s experience, Patel says. “In my line of work, everyone’s cancer is unique, and because of this I recommend cancer.net. It is comprehensive from different points of view: oncologist, patient, social worker.”
You also have the option of waiting to look at a test result until you see your doctor, Patel says. Then the doctor can review the results with you.
When seeing your doctor, take notes. You could also take another set of ears, or record your visit so that you can look back, Patel says. “So often you may just hear one piece of the puzzle. Get the full view, and from there start your research process.”
Your physician can provide vetted information after you have a diagnosis. Instead of heading to Google without a jumping off point, educate and empower yourself with more focused research on your specific diagnosis.
While research can feel empowering, unfocused Googling can heighten anxiety — all while you’re experiencing health symptoms. Instead, consult an expert to diagnose your symptoms, and then continue your research with your doctor by your side.