You have a weird pain in your side. You figure it’s not bad enough to warrant a trip to the doctor, so you turn to Google to try to figure out what’s ailing you. But can Googling your symptoms do more harm than good? We checked in with four doctors, who gave us four reasons not to use Dr. Google, plus two cases when it might not be a bad idea.
Why You Shouldn't Google Your Symptoms
1. There’s Too Much Information Online
According to Rand McClain, D.O., “The problem with Dr. Google is that it will likely give you the support to any theory you dream up if you look hard enough. This leads to more confusion and unanswered rather than answered questions.” He says that even first-year medical students aren’t immune to overthinking. “Ask any medical doctor what typically happens in the first year of medical school: As you study the various diseases and conditions and the often ubiquitous signs and symptoms that accompany them, you suddenly believe you have most of these diseases and conditions.” He recommends making use of certified medical professionals for diagnoses, and saving Google for a very last resort.
2. You Probably Don’t Have a Medical Degree
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the internet is full of misinformation. As such, many medical professionals, including Edo Paz, M.D., VP medical at the health care app K Health, agree that it typically isn’t a good resource for self-diagnosing. “That’s because health information is difficult to substantiate and not personalized. In addition, many illnesses have similar symptoms—for example, COVID-19 shares symptoms with the flu, which shares symptoms with the common cold. For someone who doesn’t have extensive medical training and doesn’t know what they’re looking for, it can actually be dangerous to rely on the internet, or cause unnecessary worry,” he says.
3. Every Body Is Different
When it comes to your personal health, even things that are true and from good sources may not apply to your specific scenario, says Nate Favini, M.D., medical lead of preventative primary care practice Forward. Because of that, it’s always a good idea to consult a doctor with any questions you may have about your specific circumstance. Everyone’s body is unique and reacts differently to different medications and treatments, so your best bet is to speak with a doctor who knows you and your medical history, and can apply the best treatment for you.
4. It Can Induce Anxiety
Because of how much information is on the internet, and how differently ailments can present in different people, Rob Darzynkiewicz, M.D., chief medical officer at Hazel Health, always recommends seeing a doctor, either virtually or in person, if you’re not feeling well. “The internet is a great resource, but many sites are incomplete or have incorrect information,” he says. “Everyone has different medical histories, and symptoms for different ailments can often overlap, making it difficult to tell what the problem is without consulting a doctor.” It’s easy, then, to get sucked into a rabbit hole of potential causes that match the symptoms you’re experiencing, which Dr. Darzynkiewicz says can cause unnecessary anxiety. “In the current environment, if face-to-face meetings aren’t a possibility, telemedicine options can offer a great solution for those concerned with their health.”
When It Might Be OK to Google Your Symptoms
1. It Can Be Useful Once You’ve Seen a Doctor
While you probably shouldn’t use Google as a first step in diagnosis, Dr. McClain says it can be helpful once you’ve seen a doctor: “Once a patient has a diagnosis (made by a qualified professional), it can be useful, informative and sometimes efficient to use Dr. Google to do further research into the known information for a given condition.” He advises that patients should ask their physician for guidance, and utilize websites like PubMed.gov, instead of something like MyHeadHurts.edu.
2. It’s a Great Place to Keep Up with Medical Developments
Dr. Favini tells us that while it might not be the right place to diagnose illnesses, it can be a useful tool to learn from. He points to the current COVID-19 pandemic: “I’m personally reading a lot on the internet to understand what’s happening with the coronavirus.” He adds that good information is out there, but be cautious. “I recommend reading from a trusted source, because there is a lot of contradicting information coming from different sources on the internet.” Trusted sources could mean hospital websites, the CDC or medical school health libraries.