Ever wake up on the wrong side of the bed and catch yourself wondering what it could be? Is it acidity, or did you sleep awkwardly? What could that chilling pain on the left side of your chest be? Hmm. “Let’s check on Google.” An hour of frantic browsing later, you’re totally awake freaked out about having a heart attack or a punctured lung! Well, that’s what you get for trusting Dr Google, who fared as badly at medical exams as we did in Algebra class.
Jokes aside, searching for illnesses based on symptoms you’re showing can come across as a quick remedy. And while natural, can often be more counterproductive than helpful. The internet might be turgid with information, but let’s not forget the downside of what we famously call – information overload. The other thing is that much of what you read online isn’t credible or verified. Had it been, otherwise, we wouldn’t have the phrase – Fake News.
But given the current circumstances created by the Covid-19-induced lockdown, we’re all constantly on the edge, with every sneeze and cough sending us into a spiralling whirlpool of anxious thoughts. And so, searching on Google becomes instinctive. How does one control these urges?
We asked three health experts for help and here’s what they have to say.
To Search Or Not to Search
While searching for your symptoms online can save you from a visit to the doctor, in some cases, it is largely not advisable. Dr Farah Ingale, consulting physician and director of Internal Medicine, Hiranandani Hospital in Vashi, Mumbai, elucidates, “The human body is complex and dynamic. Self-diagnosis [based on what you find online] is dangerous, because it focuses on symptoms alone, unlike a medical diagnosis, which is based on multiple factors, such as personal/family history, signs and lifestyle.”
He adds that self-prescribing medicines or following treatment based on online search can worsen the situation considerably and can also have a bearing on your mental health, aside from other side effects, such as stress and anxiety and lead to side effects such tension, headache, palpitation and insomnia.
And the key to controlling the urge of acting upon solutions you find online lies in understanding the difference between health information and advice. Echoing this, Dr Ravindra M Mehta, senior consultant and HOD, Pulmonology and Interventional Pulmonology, Apollo Specialty Hospitals, Jayanagar, Bengaluru, shares, “What you find on the internet is information put together by an individual or organisation based on a set of facts and knowledge. But which part of that information can be used for your benefit, can only be advised by a medical professional.”
The other issue with Googling your symptoms is that it can send you down a rabbit hole of medical information, Dr Ingale suggests. In psychology, this is known as cyberchondria or compuchondria.
Adding to this, Dr Mehta says, “Hypochondriasis can be defined as an illness anxiety disorder. A hypochondriac has an incessant fear of developing a sinister disease or ailment despite being reassured otherwise by a specialist. And when such a fear is instilled through digital media, the condition is known as cyberchondria. Cases of cyberchondria are most common among people under the age of 50 and it can lead to increased blood pressure, weaker immunity, tension and headaches.
Dial a Doctor
And while misdiagnosis, cyberchondria and the perils of self-treatment might take a while to manifest themselves, the most immediate drawback of spending too much time on health and wellness pages, while dealing with an illness, is that you’re delaying actual care. If a symptom is causing you to browse the internet for hours, chances are you need to call a doctor.
“There is so much information on the internet that it’s overwhelming for medical professionals, let alone a layman,” points out Dr Mehta. Irrespective of how well-intentioned an article might be, there’s the danger of it being misinterpreted, misrepresented or taken out of context. “If you go to a trusted source, such as a government-approved or established healthcare organization website, you are likely to receive up-to-date information and guidance. When you have correct and clear information, it is likely that you’ll be less stressed about your symptoms,” he suggests, adding that if you have symptoms that persist for more than two to three days or if your condition is worsening, visit a general physician or specialist.
Regular illnesses such as common cold, body ache and infection usually settle in three to four days. “Compare your state to what you have gone through before, if it is similar then ride it out with minimal medical support. In case it’s different, consult a medical expert right away,” Dr Mehta recommends.
While search engines, such as Google, can be a powerful tool for health information, it’s best to leave the diagnosis to a trained medical professional. However, if you must search, here’s what to keep in mind:
- Look for expert quotes or links to peer-reviewed clinical studies.
- Read the abstract or full report of peer-reviewed clinical studies to be doubly sure.
- Ensure that the information is not sponsored, because there is a possibility of it being biased.
- The information has to be not older than five years.
- Refer to websites by government, healthcare organisations, World Health Organisation (WHO) and reputed medical journals.