Should you Google your symptoms?
Researching your symptoms online can cause unnecessary anxiety and lead to late diagnosis.
Self-diagnosis on the internet is a common activity. Figures from 2019 showed that 7% of Google searches are health-related – that’s around 70,000 per minute. And it seems increasing numbers of us are turning to ‘Dr Google’ during the pandemic. In a recent survey, almost a quarter of people admitted to self-diagnosing online and not following up with a medical professional. NHS figures also show that GP consultations have fallen by 30% over the last year.
Why do we self-diagnose?
Problems accessing a GP. During the pandemic, GP consultations have taken place online and by phone where appropriate. This can often be more convenient for patients. However, a report by Healthwatch found that many people have been confused about how to get in touch with their GP during the pandemic and found their practice’s triage system frustrating.
The survey also found that many people put off going to the GP as they didn’t want to put more pressure on the NHS. And fears about the risk of contracting Covid-19 play a part too. This all could have led to a rise in self-diagnosis, with more people turning to ‘Dr Google’.
Feeling your GP isn’t listening or taking your symptoms seriously, or not giving you a clear diagnosis, may also cause you to look for answers online. Some conditions - such as chronic fatigue and irritable bowel syndrome - are still poorly understood. Struggling to get a diagnosis can be very frustrating.
Embarrassment about your symptoms has always been a common reason for consulting Dr Google rather than going to the GP. Remember that your doctor will have seen the problem countless time before. Our article about embarrassing symptoms has lots of advice to help you feel more comfortable talking about your concerns.
Dangers of online self-diagnosis
There’s a vast amount of health information on the internet but not all of it is reliable, and it can be difficult to identify trustworthy sources.
Most health conditions are more easily treated if they are diagnosed at an early stage. And in the case of serious conditions, such as cancer, early diagnosis can be lifesaving. Misdiagnosing yourself online could lull you into a false sense of security. You can easily miss significant symptoms that your GP would pick up on.
Googling your symptoms can also lead to unnecessary anxiety. 22% of the survey respondents said it had a negative impact on their mental health. ‘Cyberchondria’ is a form of hypochondria, or health anxiety, that’s fuelled by searching for medical information online. Websites often list all the possible causes of a symptom and it’s easy to focus on the worst-case scenario. Suddenly your headache must signal a brain tumour rather than have a much more common cause, such as stress or eye strain.
Cyberchondria and health anxiety can lead to a vicious cycle of worry, meaning you become hyper-aware of every little ache and bodily sensation. Sufferers can find themselves spending hours searching obsessively through site after site to find reassurance.
How to use online health information safely
It’s best to use online information to help you manage an existing condition and for general advice on healthy living, rather than for a diagnosis. However, if researching symptoms online proves just too tempting, follow these basic rules:
Use trusted websites. You may find the information you’re looking for on the Benenden Health site, or try NHS.uk and patient.info. These sites are full of straightforward, properly researched information that is verified by medical professionals and is regularly updated. They also offer tips to help you manage mild conditions, such as a sore throat, yourself at home.
Avoid websites selling or promoting ‘miracle cures’ as their content is likely to be biased.
Take care with research papers from medical journals. A huge amount of medical research is available to the public online. But just because it sounds authoritative doesn’t mean it’s correct or up to date. Journal articles are also written for medical professionals rather than for patients so can be misinterpreted if you don’t have a medical background.
When, and why, you should consult your GP
The bottom line is if you are concerned enough to be researching your symptoms on the internet, then it’s time to consult your doctor, practice nurse or pharmacist for a professional opinion.
Your GP has access to your medical records, knows your risk factors and has the professional experience to ask the right questions. They're far better able to assess your condition than a computer algorithm. They can also order tests to confirm a diagnosis and ensure you get the right treatment. This means you won’t be left with a lingering worry.
And there are a number of symptoms that definitely need to be checked by a doctor. Read our article to find out more about the signs you should see a GP.
If you’re unsure if your problem merits a GP visit, you can speak to a medical professional for advice and reassurance by calling NHS 111. Alternatively, your local pharmacist is a great source of information and advice.