Health concern? Google it!

Got symptoms? Here’s proper way of researching health-related matters

By Barbara Pierce


You’re going to Google your symptoms — we all do — so you might as well do it right.

We asked Juleen Qandah, emergency medicine physician-director of urgent care at Faxton St. Luke’s Health Care in Utica, for suggestions on how to get the best results.

— Use the right keyword to search: Use somewhat clinical terms and you’ll get better results, Qandah explained. For example, use “stomach pain,” not “tummy ache.”

Search with a basic keyword like “headache,” rather than adding diagnostic terms such as “headache and brain tumor.” Googling a worst-case scenario will influence your search results and it will deliver you plenty of sites that will cause you unreasonable fears and leave you in a panic.

Or it may downplay the seriousness of symptoms and cause you to put off seeing a health care professional when you really should. If you need medical attention, researching online may not be sufficient and visiting an Urgent care center may be the best thing to do.

“When you look up ‘brain tumor,’ instead of ‘headache,’ it can have a very negative effect,” she said. Start simply.

“When you look up something and see all the other symptoms, your subconscious can make you develop these symptoms and will make you feel worse,” she said. “It’s called the nocebo effect. You expect to feel worse and you do.”

For example, when you anticipate a side effect of a medication, you can suffer that effect even when the medication is actually an inert substance. The opposite, the placebo effect, occurs when you have positive expectations that improve the outcome. Though both the placebo and nocebo effects are psychological, they can cause real changes in the body.

— Don’t stop at just one site in your search. Look it up on a few websites, Qandah recommends. Then put all the information together.

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.

— Use creditable websites: Mayo clinic is good.  Wikipedia is excellent. Use websites that are national or international, she suggests, like Centers for Disease Control (

The most reputable sites have .gov or .edu after the name. Those are the best; they’re not trying to sell you a product. They may not be pretty but they’re accurate.

Avoid glitz and glitter

— Don’t be swayed by glitzy sites. Beautiful eye-catching graphics are no indication that the information you’re about to read is accurate. Sites that have .com and .net after the name, 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.

When Google says “Ad” above the result, that means that site has something to sell. Be aware that not all information on the web is reliable.

— Let your health care professional know you’ve done research on the Internet. “I love it when people come in with information with their questions,” said Qandah. “It can be helpful if they’ve looked up symptoms prior to seeing us. They’re somewhat informed and I know they’re actively interested in their own medical care.”

“Tell us what you’re worried about. What do you want us to rule out to set your mind at ease? Be up front with your concerns,” she said.

Discuss what you’ve read with your doctor.

— Here’s the bottom line: Never ever make a final diagnosis of yourself based on what you’ve read on the Internet. You and your doctor work together to come up with a diagnosis, stresses Qandah.

If you’re wondering what other people are wondering about, here are the top health searches in Google for one year:

— Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most-searched disease term across the United States, according to one survey. Considering that 79 million Americans have one or more types of this virus (which may lead to subsequent conditions such as warts and cervical cancer, depending on the type of HPV you have), it’s no surprise it’s such a popular search term.

Other top Google searches include celiac disease, diabetes, and asthma, along with AIDS and liver disease.

Another study found the most Googled symptom in the U.S. is stress. The top sources of stress were money, work, the current political climate, the future of the nation, and violence and crime.

Other common searches included nasal congestion, stuffy nose and sniffles.

Pew Research found that pregnancy is a popular search among the younger demographic. Google data show that there is a lot of worried — or elated — searching on the part of a relatively small group of people.

Whatever your search, the Internet might have your answer. While the Internet is a good starting point, it shouldn’t be your final answer. While Google certainly has a vast quantity of information, it lacks discernment and the ability to understand all the other factors that go into making a diagnosis, like personal and family history. As always, if you have a specific question or concern about your health, it’s usually best to visit an urgent care center or ask your health care professional.