In the past year, I’ve convinced myself that I had solar retinopathy, rhabdo, an abdominal aortic aneurysm, Lyme disease, appendicitis, and an abscessed tooth. (And that’s just a sampling of my would-be ailments.)
I have a sickness, all right. But it’s none of those things.
I’m a total hypochondriac—or, rather, a “cyberchondriac.” I’m addicted to Googling my random health symptoms, and for a few hours, I end up convincing myself that I’ve come down with conditions ranging from irritating to insidious (and usually unlikely).
Sound familiar to you? Ours is a common plight, according to Nina Shapiro, MD, author of Hype: A Doctor’s Guide to Medical Myths, Exaggerated Claims, and Bad Advice—How To Tell What’s Real and What’s Not.
“[If you’re] trying to diagnose yourself, it’s a slippery slope,” says Dr. Shapiro. With a wealth of medical information (good and bad) at your fingertips, it’s all too tempting to plug in a quick search of your symptoms—and dive right into the worst-case scenario. Cue fearmonger-y articles, message boards, shady websites, and the WebMD Symptom Checker to confirm your suspicions.
“When it comes to your own personal health, even for people in medicine or science, a lot of common sense can go out the window pretty quickly.”—Nina Shapiro, MD
Turns out, even medical professionals aren’t immune to self-diagnosing. “In medical school, we used to call it second-year disease—we would convince ourselves that we had every single rare disease that we ever read about,” says Dr. Shapiro. “When it comes to your own personal health, even for people in medicine or science, a lot of common sense can go out the window pretty quickly.”
All of this isn’t to say that you should never Google your symptoms. But the goal shouldn’t be to diagnose yourself—it should be to give you an idea of what comes next. So the question is, how do you sort out the lies from the truth online, and talk yourself off the ledge when your search results are dire? Start by consulting this wisdom from Dr. Shapiro. (Because as convenient as the internet may be, it doesn’t have a medical degree.)
Here are six common traps to avoid falling into the next time you start Googling your symptoms.
Lie #1: “You’re bloated, so you probably have a gluten or dairy intolerance.”
Googling distressing digestive symptoms can often lead you right into food allergy or intolerance territory. “[People start thinking], ‘I get bloated when I eat too much bread, so I have gluten intolerance.’ Or, ‘I had a full pizza and my stomach hurts, I must be dairy-intolerant.’ We hear that all the time,” says Dr. Shapiro. Even non-GI symptoms like itchiness can lead you to decide you don’t react well to a widely maligned food.
These kinds of symptoms can be delayed, nebulous, and widespread—which means it’s not hard to match the symptoms you’re experiencing with, say, those associated with gluten intolerance. However, diagnosing food intolerances and allergies doesn’t happen on a search engine. It requires specific testing, like blood tests, breath tests, or elimination diets.
The truth is, sometimes, a stomachache and fatigue really are just a pasta hangover. And even if they’re not, the symptom lists on Google aren’t necessarily good benchmarks for your own personal intolerances.
Lie #2: “Your headache must mean you’re having a stroke.”
While this isn’t necessarily a lie, one of the most common mistakes when it comes to Googling your symptoms is plugging in what you think could be the cause. “Part of it is user bias—if you are concerned about a certain disease or infection, you’ll put in the [search] terms to find that,” explains Shapiro. (For example, how many times have you typed in something like “headache stroke”?)
To avoid this, Shapiro says to start by searching for the most basic version of a symptom—no “suspicions” allowed. “If you just Google ‘headache,’ you’re actually going to get some useful information about what types of headaches there are, what are the possible causes, what are the possible treatments.” When you guess at what’s going on, you eliminate other potential causes from your search that might be more likely.
Lie #3: “Your fatigue is undoubtedly due to a serious, chronic illness.”
Not unlike food intolerances, vague and widespread symptoms like fatigue, joint pain, or rashes often match up with symptom lists for some pretty major chronic illnesses that you’ve probably heard of—like Celiac disease, Lyme disease, or fibromyalgia.
But more often than not, these symptoms are due to something simpler. Take fatigue, for example. “I’m tired all the time—I’m a surgeon,” says Dr. Shapiro. “That doesn’t mean I have an illness, but it probably means I need more sleep.”
That said, if you have frustrating symptoms like these that interfere with your life—and you can’t pinpoint an obvious reason behind ’em—it’s not a bad idea to get them checked out. But Google really can’t tell you much, says Dr. Shapiro.
“An autoimmune disease is very specific entity that requires blood testing, specialist evaluation, [and more],” she says. “And there are ways to diagnose, say, Lyme disease—but it’s not going to be on your screen.”
Lie #4: “This product will solve your [insert problem here].”
Often, when you Google specific symptoms and their potential causes and cures, you’ll be led to ads for products that promise to heal what ails you, explains Dr. Shapiro. “If you Google ‘toothache,’ it will often take you to some advertisements for products that may nothing to do with your toothache, which may just be sensitivity or some gum irritation,” she says. “Or maybe you have a sinus infection that has nothing to do with your teeth.”
Before you go straight to Amazon Prime, it’s best to figure out what’s actually going on—otherwise, you may just end up spending your cash on products that won’t actually address the root cause.
Lie #5: “If your side hurts, you definitely have appendicitis—get to an ER, stat.”
It’s not uncommon to turn to Google for nagging internal pains and see the worst-case scenario first. Take abdominal cramps, for example. “Ruling out appendicitis is one of the most common occasions that someone shows up in an emergency room,” says Dr. Shapiro.
But when it comes to pain, Google doesn’t account for severity in your search results. “If you’re well enough to sit at your computer and look this up, you probably don’t have appendicitis,” the doctor says. “[If you do,] you can barely move, sit up, or stand.” The same goes for things like heart attacks and strokes, she adds.
While pain can vary from person to person, it’s important to remember that medical emergencies like these will usually make themselves known in a way that says you have to get to an ER. Of course, trust your intuition. But if you’re only a little concerned, start by calling your doctor and keeping an eye on things.
Lie #6: “This weird pain is probably nothing to worry about.”
This is the dark side of Googling your symptoms. While it’s more common to convince yourself of the worst possible outcome, the flip side is that you might convince yourself that you have something less serious and miss a true medical emergency.
“You can be having arm pain from a heart attack and say, ‘Oh, it’s probably nothing, I probably just have shoulder problems,'” warns Shapiro. Instead, learn to trust your gut and pick up the phone if you’re concerned it’s urgent. “We’ve lost the art of calling our doctors, or even calling an emergency room,” says Shapiro. “There’s a nurse line in most ERs that you can call for advice.” And if it’s a non-emergency situation, make a doc’s appointment and pull yourself away from that search bar—or just take the results with a grain of salt.
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