Google Doesn’t Know What Your Symptoms Mean

You’re feeling lightheaded. Almost as a reflex, you pull out your phone and search “lightheadedness is a symptom of…” Immediately, you have dozens of possible explanations, including dehydration, drug side effects, low blood sugar, ear infections, anxiety, carbon monoxide poisoning, high blood pressure, low blood pressure, stroke, heart attack and brain tumor.

Now you’re lightheaded and terrified.

Everyone turns to Dr. Google sometimes. But these searches can lead to fear and anxiety, and they won’t provide any specific information about your health, says UNC Health cardiologist Christopher Kelly, MD, co-author of “Am I Dying?! A Complete Guide to Your Symptoms — and What to Do Next.”

“I certainly think most physicians should expect that patients are going to look up their symptoms,” he says. “What you don’t want is for patients to become upset by what they read. There’s a lot of good information online, but there’s also a lot of bad information.”

Here are some things to keep in mind when searching for health information online.

Choose Reputable Sources of Information

When you are doing your own research, make sure you can trust the source, Dr. Kelly says. Look for information posted by major medical centers, such as UNC Health and the Mayo Clinic, or medical schools, like UNC School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School. Government agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), provide information that has been developed and reviewed by physicians. Also, health organizations such as the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association are reliable sources of information.

Using only reputable sources is very important, but it’s still important to remember that, without being examined by a physician, you have no way of knowing if what you’re experiencing is a particular condition.

Exercise Healthy Skepticism

Be careful using commercial sites that rely on advertising, Dr. Kelly says. “They tend to be more sensational. They’re trying to keep people on their site longer.”

Also, beware of medical information on social media, which tends to be chock-full of claims without evidence and speculation.

“You want to know the person providing the information is knowledgeable,” Dr. Kelly says. “Also, you should be cautious about putting too much value on a personal experience a patient is sharing on social media. Their experience is not necessarily going to be yours, too. Even if you think your symptoms sound similar, you don’t know that you have the same disease, or that your outcome will be the same.”

Again, only a doctor examining you and running any necessary tests can make a diagnosis.

Do Your Research and Then Step Away

These warnings don’t mean that looking up information about your symptoms or disease, if you’ve been diagnosed, is a waste of time, Dr. Kelly says.

“If you’ve sought medical advice from multiple physicians and haven’t been able to get an answer, I’m all for looking for leads in all kinds of places,” he says. “When you have additional information, I recommend you go back to your physician who can help you approach your diagnosis in a reasonable way.”

Don’t send articles or links to your physician through MyChart or other routes, Dr. Kelly says.

“Make a list of your questions and the resources you’ve found, and plan to discuss them at your next appointment,” he says.

Once you’ve reviewed a reputable source or two, try to step away from Google and get back to your life. Call your doctor and make an appointment if needed, and then refocus on your day. It can be hard to do, but it’s important for reducing stress.

“No one wants to ignore something that could be serious, so check in with your doctor and then try to take comfort in the fact that you’re consulting with an expert,” Dr. Kelly says. “If you’re worried, that stress raises blood pressure, which increases the risk of heart disease and diminishes our enjoyment of life, which is precious and short.”

If you are having new or worsening symptoms, contact your doctor or find one near you.