You know you’re not supposed to consult Dr. Google when what you really need is a real doctor, but you’re here because you did. You had a headache, and now you’re halfway convinced it’s a brain tumour, and you’re freaking out. Sit down. Take a deep breath. It’s going to be ok. Let’s talk.
Why your search results may not match what’s going on inside your body
Our bodies are messy and complicated, and there isn’t always a straightforward connection between a symptom and a disease. If you have an appliance that’s blinking an orange light, you can look up the manual and see what exactly it means. The human body isn’t that simple.
That means googling a symptom, or even a medical test result, can lead you down rabbit holes that have nothing to do with what’s actually going on in your body. For example, fever and nausea aren’t characteristic of one specific disease. They are part of an inflammatory response that your body can turn on for dealing with a wide variety of issues, from the common cold or your period coming on to cancer or a deadly infectious disease.
Even if you have something pretty minor, you can quickly end up looking at the symptoms of a serious illness and recognising a lot of things that sound familiar. That said, the reverse can also happen, where you overlook something serious because the search results lead you to think it’s nothing.
There is another reason why searches can lead us astray: Search results pages aren’t designed as diagnostic tools. Things that people google more often, or that may be more engaging or readable, or that make money via sponsored results, are likely to show up at the top of the results.
The results are also biased toward what people are most interested in writing about online. I remember searching for information on some foot pain I had when running, and kept coming up with results about plantar fasciitis. This condition is common, moderately serious if you’re a runner, and has some characteristic symptoms that people who write for running magazines can easily describe. By the time I got an actual doctor to look at my foot, it turned out I had something completely different going on — an irritation of one of the less famous tendons in my foot. There aren’t nearly as many search results out there about that.
Stop googling if what you’re looking for is certainty
When you notice yourself getting sucked into symptom-googling, stop and ask yourself why you’re doing it. Most of the time, we google because we want some kind of certainty. We just got our test results and we want to know what they mean, or we’re worried we might have a particular injury and we want to know for sure.
The problem is, Dr. Google cannot tell us what is going on in our bodies. It can only offer possibilities, and give us information about those possibilities. Once you realise you’re searching for an answer, not for background information, it’s time to switch tactics.
In other words: call the freakin’ doctor. Go to urgent care. Make a telehealth appointment. Send a message on MyChart. Whatever is the most direct way to get an answer to your question, go ahead and do that. If you still aren’t sure whether your symptoms warrant a doctor visit, see if your health insurance plan has a nurse line that fields these sorts of calls; many do. If not, telehealth appointments tend to be quick, not too expensive, and they’ll gladly send you to the emergency room if that’s where they think you need to be.
Keep googling if you want to plan for the worst
Googling isn’t all bad. If you’ve already seen the doctor and you’re waiting for test results or a follow-up appointment, you may want to start reading up on the possible diagnoses, and what would happen if one of them comes true.
For example, when I was waiting to hear whether my dog had cancer (she did), I read up on what you even do when your dog has cancer. What treatments are commonly offered? What decisions might I have to make? What are the survival rates like? I was able to read all of this information without the emotional weight of knowing the diagnosis; it was just a possibility. And by the time I got the official word from the veterinarian, I wasn’t shocked to hear it, and I knew what questions to ask as we planned out our next steps.
If you go this route, remember to keep an open mind about the possibilities. Your diagnosis could always end up being something you didn’t read about at all. But if a certain possibility is on your mind, go ahead and read up.
How to Google your symptoms responsibly
Once you acknowledge that your googling can only provide you with background information, not certainty, you’ll be better equipped to decide whether you want to keep clicking.
If you do, make sure to seek out legitimate medical sources. Many of the best places to read up on medical conditions are organisations dedicated to them, especially ones that include a lot of reading material and resources for patients.
To find these organisations, search for “[medical condition] association” and you’ll often find exactly what you need. It’s also worth checking the World Health Organisation, and your state public health department. All of these organisations exist to help people stay healthy.
I would not recommend reading things from message boards, social media influencers (some are great, some are quacks), or from random search results that look vaguely medical. Many of the latter are articles produced as marketing for doctors’ offices, and they don’t always have the best or most up-to-date information.
Finally, when you do get in touch with your doctor again, don’t recap everything you read while you stayed up all night googling. Let them make the diagnosis based on the data they know how to work with — the exam, the test results, your description of the symptoms that concern you the most.
If you came across a possibility in your googling that doesn’t come up in your talk with your provider, it’s totally fine to ask about it. Say “I’m worried it might be cancer, do we have a way of ruling that out?” and then listen to what they have to say. After all, making the diagnosis is the thing doctors are good at — and that’s why you went to see one of them instead of spending another night with Dr. Google.
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