By Dr Kishore Kumar
Consulting ‘Dr. Internet’ is bad for health. Recently, a couple came to see me. They sounded anxious since they noticed ‘a lump’ on the side of the neck of their three-year-old child.
I examined her and said that she has a mild sore throat with jugulo-digastric lymph node slightly enlarged due to throat infection.
The parents were relieved since they did an online search for ‘lump in the neck’ and found that the child could have had leukemia (blood cancer) or lymphoma (lymph node cancer).
This problem of searching for your symptoms online is called ‘Cyberchondria’. Eye twitching? Weird stomach pain? Leg cramp? Is it a symptom of a serious disease?
Beware of consulting Dr Internet
Beware of the temptation to ask Dr Internet. Consulting Dr Internet leads to overestimation of your symptoms and you could end up taking the wrong medication, wrong self-treatment, or you underestimate your symptoms and let a condition worsen
Things to keep in mind while consulting Dr Internet
Don’t search using diagnostic terms: When consulting Dr Internet or searching for your symptoms, it’s better to search using a basic keyword like ‘headache’, rather than ‘headache and brain tumor.’
Looking up a worst-case scenario can bias your search results. Don’t be too colloquial: Type in ‘abdominal pain’ as opposed to ‘tummy ache’ and you’re likelier to draw up medical sites that will provide the more useful information.
Authenticity of the websites: Sites ending in .edu denote an academic institution and those ending in .gov are government sites. Both are reputable sources. Be wary of links appearing at the very top and bottom of the search results pages; these are sponsored listings.
Don’t stop searching too soon: Your search for medical information shouldn’t end at just one link. For instance, if the first search results for ‘jaw pain’ help you realise that your pain may be a dental issue, that might warrant another search on an academic website for more information.
Remember, anyone can publish content online: Your search results may turn up a reputable medical site that provides valuable information. But it can also turn up a general article, an open forum or someone’s personal blog.
These sources may be entirely inaccurate and (more likely than not) aren’t being published by a medical professional with the right credentials.
Beware of health anxiety: Online searches can cause anxiety — cyberchondria. People can become obsessed and the amount of time they spend checking the web for information can interfere with their daily lives.
Doctors spend years in medical college: Your doctor can physically see and examine your symptoms way better than a pop quiz about a headache online.
You could misdiagnose yourself: I see so many parents confused when I prescribe paracetamol — they say my child doesn’t have fever! But I keep explaining that paracetamol has anti-pyretic (fever), analgesic (for pain) and anti-inflammatory effect — do you know which one I am giving you for?
Time period of source: Nutrition and medical science evolves quickly. Look for studies no older than 10 years, but preferably no older than five years.
Funding: Many companies in the health industry commission and fund research studies to prove the efficacy of their products. That’s totally fine — it doesn’t necessarily mean the results are skewed – but just know that company-funded studies are not independent, third-party studies, which are the most reliable.
Dr Kishore Kumar, Author of this article is the Chairman and Neonatologist, Cloudnine Group of Hospitals, Bengaluru