Dr. Kim Foster: Wicked Health


Should You Google Your Health Symptoms?

The good, the bad, and the downright terrifying

Got a weird twinge in your neck? Kid just woke up with a strange rash? Something odd about the way your tongue feels? Hmm...what to do...ooh, I know. Jump on the old laptop and Google that freaky symptom!

Or, maybe not.

I typically assume most patients have already Googled themselves silly before turning up in my office. And that assumption usually turns out to be correct. But is it a good idea?

Well, yes and no.

Yes, because ignorance is a bad thing. I’m a fan of proactive patients, of people taking responsibility for their own (and their kids') health. It’s your body, and your family, after all. You should absolutely know what’s going on. We’re in the information age, and there is no shortage of information out there on every health issue imaginable. It gives us all a wonderful opportunity to take the very best care of ourselves and be an active partner in our own health decisions.

On the other hand, you can scare the bejeezus out of yourself looking up medical information online.

So, there are good ways to go about this and bad ways. Performing a random Google search is probably a bad way. You’re going to get all kinds of wacky opinions and terrifying images coming at you. Keep in mind: only the most bizarre cases and extreme examples end up online, particularly in full-colour glory. Also, just as there’s a ton of information out there, there is a whole lot of misinformation too. The trouble is, you’re not necessarily going to know if it’s good or bad information you're looking at.

Here’s the good way: stick to reputable sites. Go directly to a trustworthy portal, and enter your query there. Here are the ones I routinely recommend:

By sticking to high-quality, reliable sites, you’ll be armed with solid information. Not walking around all jittery with false fears and worries. (I mean, do you really need a whole new source of stress?) But even within this approach, there is, of course, a danger that you can develop a layperson’s case of “medical student’s disease”: the phenomenon that once you start reading about various medical conditions, you become increasingly convinced that you are actually have said medical conditions.  

So read, but try to limit your time spent poring over all the gruesome details of every rare condition you can lay your hands on.

One last note: some things should never be Googled, no matter what the circumstances. For example, never, ever Google for images of peri-anal genital warts. Trust me. Some things just can’t be scrubbed from your brain.

So tell me: Do you Google your health symptoms before booking a doctor’s appointment? Do you find it helps—or freaks you out?