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11 Things You Shouldn’t Do When Googling Health Symptoms

If you're going to Google your symptoms—and everyone does—you might as well do it right. We asked experts about the most common mistakes people make. Here's what they told us.

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Don’t search using diagnostic terms

When Googling your symptoms, it’s better to search using a basic keyword like “headache,” rather than adding diagnostic terms such as “headache and brain tumor.” Googling a worst-case scenario (or any specific scenario, for that matter) can bias your search results—and deliver you plenty of sites that may confirm unfounded fears (which will leave you in a panic) or may even downplay the seriousness of symptoms (causing you to delay seeing a doctor if you need to). “Start simply,” advises Nina Shapiro, MD, author of Hype: A Doctor’s Guide to Medical Myths, Exaggerated Claims, and Bad Advice. This way, your search results will deliver a full range of possibilities, allowing you to filter out results that don’t apply to you and zero in on the ones that might.

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Don’t be too colloquial

Type in “abdominal pain” as opposed to “tummy ache” and you’re likelier to draw up medical sites—according to Google Search Help. And it’s the medical sites that will provide the more useful information.

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Don’t be swayed by glitzy sites

You can’t judge a site by its appearance. A beautiful page layout and eye-catching videos and graphics are no indication that the information you’re about to read is accurate. Sites that end with .com and .net, even when completely health-focused, are generally commercial sites, supported by advertising. “That doesn’t mean these sites are necessarily wrong, but they can be biased,” says Dr. Shapiro, who is the director of Pediatric Ear, Nose, and Throat Medicine at Mattel’s Children Hospital UCLA. When looking at a commercial health site, see if it properly cites and links to original sources for its information, such as recent studies. Reputable health sites do.

Sites ending in .edu denote an academic institution and those ending in .gov are government sites (such as cdc.gov); both are reputable sources.”In general, websites affiliated with academic, medical, or government centers tend to be purely informational and not so biased,” says Dr. Shapiro. They may not be as good-looking as commercial sites, but there’s trusted information there. Sites ending in .org can be a mixed bag. While they’re often helmed by nonprofit organizations, anyone can register a .org domain these days without submitting any documentation or proof that they are a nonprofit. Some .orgs are backed by trustworthy professional medical academies (such as familydoctor.org, created by the American Academy of Family Physicians, which has a built-in symptom checker, by the way). “People shouldn’t sell [them] short. They can get a lot out of them, even if it’s a professional site.” When in doubt, read through the “About” page. (See below.)

Be wary of links appearing at the very top and bottom of Google search results pages; these are sponsored listings and they’re labeled as such, adds Dr. Shapiro.

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Don’t second-guess your original symptom

If you’re experiencing a particular symptom and see that it’s often accompanied by other symptoms, don’t fall prey to the nocebo effect—the opposite of the placebo effect: You expect to feel worse, and then you do. In a recent International Journal of Cardiology paper, countries where people regularly Google the side effects of statin drugs are likelier to show higher levels of statin intolerance. Bottom line? What we read online may subconsciously leave a greater impression than we think. (If you really are wondering about statin drugs, here’s a cardiologist’s guide to smart statin use.)

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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 realize that your pain may be a dental issue, that might warrant another search on the American Dental Association website (ada.org) for more specific information. In addition, even if you find a site that seems to provide a reasonable explanation for your symptoms, it’s worth reading through several reputable sites to give you a balance of information.

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Don’t overlook how sites source their information

When your search turns up a news article that sounds like it describes your symptoms, track it to the original source and read that for yourself, especially when it comes to breaking health studies. Many scientific articles are written in a way that’s accessible to patients, too, and not just medical professionals. With some basic study terms (see below) under your belt, a paper from an academic journal can provide clues for further research. Print out the study, and it can be a helpful starting point for an upcoming discussion with your doctor. A good way to obtain relevant scientific papers is through Google Scholar. Here are 7 signs you shouldn’t trust what you just read on the Web.

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Don’t assume a journal article is right

A peer-reviewed academic paper can be a good primary source on a particular issue, but it’s findings may not necessarily be relevant to you or even relevant anymore. First, check out the year the article was published; if it was written ten years ago, it could be outdated information. Note the study sample size—if small, the findings may not be that relevant—and whether it was a long- or short-term study. Also take note if the research was performed on human subjects or animal subjects. Is it a large-scale, randomized, controlled study (the gold standard) or a review study that summarizes a lot of previous research? If the findings are “preliminary,” they might lead you down the wrong path, warns Robert Raspa, MD, member of the American Academy of Family Physicians Board of Directors, and a family physician in Jacksonville, Florida. “You also need to make sure that the article comes from a reputable peer-reviewed journal, and your doctor can help be a filter.”

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Don’t skip the “About Us” section

Some sites have an agenda, so make sure to read about who’s behind the advice you’re reading by clicking on “About Us.” If there isn’t any kind of page explaining who is credentialing the site’s information, that’s not a good sign. Take it a step further and Google the organization, to make sure it’s an unbiased source. Some sites may be completely funded by a drug company or an organization that profits from the sale of herbal remedies. “If the site is touting a remedy, and you see that there’s a sponsor for that entity behind the site, then there’s reason to doubt the purity of the information,” says Dr. Shapiro.

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Don’t rely only on basic Google

Besides Google Scholar, use Google Advanced Search, which provides high-caliber search-refinement techniques—this can be helpful especially in finding the original source for scientific studies. With advanced search, you can search within sites (and therefore zero in on sites that may be most helpful, such as .gov and .edu sites), and also refine your search by date, so you can fetch more recent, and therefore relevant, articles.

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Don’t hesitate to ask doctors to share their favorite health sites

Doctors know that many of their patients are Googling their diagnoses online, and some are calling their colleagues to assist in the process. As Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, a Seattle-based pediatrician and founder of Seattle Mama Doc, writes on KevinMD.com, a popular physician’s blog: “It’s a new world….We must guide families to trusted and valuable voices and then help confirm or redirect the results of their online learning.” So next time you’re at your doctor’s office for a checkup, ask him where he suggests patients search for medical information. If you don’t feel comfortable discussing this with your practitioner, these are the tell-tale signs that you may need a new doctor.

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Don’t let Dr. Google have the final word

Never make any medical decisions solely based on what you’ve read on the Internet—and definitely not at a site that suggests you purchase something to feel better. Print out articles that you think are relevant—or even ones you’re just curious about—and discuss them with your doctor. It’s one of many ways to make your doctor visits more productive. “If you were concerned enough to look up your symptom online, then you ought to follow through with it and see a doctor,” says Dr. Raspa.

Here’s a guide to the best and worst health sources on the Internet.