The Internet is an excellent resource for many things. Among the wonders of the current digital age are the wealth of information available online and the ease with which we can access that information. Having the world’s knowledge at our fingertips or in our pockets is excellent for remembering what other TV shows featured an actor or beginning a research paper, but some information should be sought with extra care and consideration. Medical information falls squarely into that camp.

When you’re not feeling well, it can be tempting to type a list of your symptoms into your favorite search engine, but the results may be misleading or even dangerous.

The Dangers of Searching for Symptoms

Have a headache? There are many potential causes, some of which include:

  • A Cold
  • Allergies
  • Eye Strain
  • Stress
  • Poor Sleep

Many headaches arise from these and other common ailments or triggers. Headache treatments can range from a nap and over-the-counter painkillers to testing for more serious conditions. In fact, many people experiencing headaches don’t even think to research the cause online. But those that do?

They may encounter inaccurate or frightening information. A survey by Microsoft uncovered a startling statistic: up to 26 percent of medical information searches that included a headache as a symptom turned up articles that contained information about brain tumors.

When researching information online, the only filter you have for the relevance of what you find is your own knowledge. A headache can be a symptom of a brain tumor, but most headaches aren’t indicative of that serious diagnosis.

Headaches and brain tumors aren’t the only examples either. Search engine results tend to feature the more severe diagnosis over the more common and more likely one, and people searching for diagnosis are likely to walk away with the belief that their symptoms mean they’re suffering from that condition.

In fact, search engine rankings have little to do with how valuable the information will be to understanding the symptoms you’re experiencing. They use formulas that factor in page views, how long visitors stay on the page, and how often the page is linked to from other sources; these formulas don’t rank results on prevalence or accuracy.

The safest bet when your headaches suddenly become more severe is to discuss the symptoms or changes with a doctor who can put that information into perspective. Valuable online resources exist to connect you with trained, medically licensed online doctors, as found on Chat Live MD.

How Online Search Results Are Harmful

According to a 2013 study, the average American spends as much as an hour a week reading health information online. While much of this can be casual reading, self-diagnosis through online research is becoming more and more prevalent.

The obvious danger of this research is inaccurate information. There are reputable sources of medical information online, but they often don’t feature prominently in search results. This is because of the way search algorithms work: they prioritize information that people like, and they don’t have a way to independently screen information for accuracy. Some feedback, such as links to excellent content from other sources, can factor into these algorithms, but popular misconceptions can also spread quickly through top results.

Even apart from blatantly incorrect information, misdiagnosing symptoms can be harmful if the diagnosis isn’t verified by a doctor or other trained medical online doctors. Many ailments can be treated with over-the-counter medications or diet or lifestyle changes, and people who find these solutions online often seek out these treatments because they’re inexpensive and easier to implement than visiting a doctor. They often take medications and make changes that are ineffective at treating their symptoms; they can even make symptoms or conditions worse.

Additionally, people often hold on to their self-diagnosis, even when faced with competing, reliable information from a professional. This attachment to their research can inhibit treatment by leading patients to ignore important medical advice or insist on tests or treatments that are unnecessary and harmful.

Using Online Research

Internet research can be a helpful tool for understanding health topics, especially after a diagnosis has been made, but research into symptoms and conditions should always be backed up by a professional opinion. Online doctors can evaluate symptoms in the context of your medical history, and they can provide the best-personalized advice and treatment plans. While it may be tempting to turn to online resources for these sensitive issues, these searches can’t replace the experience of a licensed, trained medical professional. Technology has made it easier to talk to a doctor online from anywhere today.

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