Goodbye Dr. Google and Self-Diagnosis: 5 Pitfalls of Acting Like Your Own Doctor

Raise your hand if you’ve ever Googled caus­es for a headache, gone down a rab­bit hole, and deter­mined that you have a rare dis­ease that will most like­ly kill you with­in 24 hours.

Now raise your hand if you have ever had every symp­tom under the sun — but didn’t have the time to deal with it — so you con­vinced your­self that it’s not real­ly that bad.” 

(Hands down now).

While it’s nor­mal to fall into the trap of try­ing to diag­nose your­self, it tru­ly is just that: a trap. 

Here are 5 rea­sons why it’s a much bet­ter idea to con­sult an actu­al doc­tor instead of Dr. Google:

1. You Might Mis­di­ag­nose Your­self — And Work Your­self Into a Panic.

Let’s revis­it that first sce­nario where you’ve decid­ed that that minor headache will prob­a­bly be the begin­ning of the end. 

It’s true that a headache could be a sign of some­thing more sin­is­ter, like bleed­ing in the brain (which affects approx­i­mate­ly 23 out of every 100,000 peo­ple in the US each year). But a minor headache is prob­a­bly more like­ly to be a ten­sion headache (the most com­mon type of headache, affect­ing 2 out of 3 adults), which isn’t asso­ci­at­ed with brain disease. 

It’s a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion for symp­toms like the occa­sion­al sore throat or a low-grade fever, which can often be chalked up to minor ill­ness­es such as a com­mon cold or sea­son­al allergies. 

If you con­stant­ly con­vince your­self that your stuffy nose is the start of your immi­nent demise, you might wind up work­ing your­self into a pan­ic. And for some peo­ple, that anx­i­ety could be the start of a vicious cycle — the anx­i­ety man­i­fests phys­i­cal­ly, which makes you more anx­ious, which brings on more symptoms. 

Accord­ing to a 2019 sur­vey, 65% of Amer­i­cans report­ed attempt­ing to diag­nose them­selves on Google — but more than half of the self-diag­noses were incor­rect. Of these respon­dents, 43% incor­rect­ly con­vinced them­selves they had a seri­ous ill­ness, and 74% said that self-diag­nos­ing stressed them out.

2. Or, You Might Not Get Diag­nosed at All.

Now let’s revis­it sce­nario #2: You don’t want to admit that you’re sick, so you just keep chug­ging along like noth­ing is wrong.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, this can mean miss­ing the memo that there actu­al­ly is some­thing hap­pen­ing that needs med­ical attention. 

In some instances, that might mean that you don’t stay in and get the rest you need, which could make you feel even worse or expose oth­ers to a con­ta­gious illness.

In more seri­ous cas­es, ignor­ing symp­toms for long enough could have seri­ous con­se­quences. For exam­ple, if you notice a lump in your breast, it’s crit­i­cal to have your provider check it out right away. It could be a sign of can­cer, and it’s best to diag­nose it as ear­ly as pos­si­ble, since can­cer found in its ear­li­est stages is eas­i­er to treat. 

If you’re con­cerned about being sick, or have been expe­ri­enc­ing new symp­toms, make an appoint­ment with a Duly Health and Care pri­ma­ry care provider.

3. You Might Give Your­self the Wrong Treat­ment Plan.

The inter­net is full of peo­ple who have seem­ing­ly mag­i­cal reme­dies for ail­ments rang­ing from mos­qui­to bites to COVID-19, or who promise that a dai­ly spoon­ful of hon­ey cures chron­ic headaches. But unless a med­ica­tion is pre­scribed by your provider or an over-the-counter treat­ment has been approved for use by the US Food and Drug Admin­is­tra­tion (FDA), it’s not cer­tain to work — and it could even be dangerous.

For instance, you may have heard that tak­ing aspirin every day pre­vents heart attacks. How­ev­er, tak­ing aspirin dai­ly when it hasn’t been pre­scribed to you increas­es your risk for com­pli­ca­tions like bleed­ing in your stom­ach or your brain.

4. Or You Might Give Your­self the Wrong Well­ness Plan.

Or, you may be tempt­ed to load up on sup­ple­ments like vit­a­mins to boost your over­all health. But cer­tain sup­ple­ments — espe­cial­ly if tak­en in high dos­es or along with oth­er sup­ple­ments — can actu­al­ly be harm­ful. For exam­ple, get­ting too much vit­a­min A can cause liv­er dam­age. Tak­ing vit­a­min C or vit­a­min E sup­ple­ments can reduce the effec­tive­ness of cer­tain can­cer chemother­a­py treatments. 

Your provider may pre­scribe sup­ple­ments if you have a defi­cien­cy but let them make that call. 

Also read, Which Pri­ma­ry Care Doc­tor is best for me?

5. And You Might Be the Vic­tim of Med­ical Misinformation.

This is espe­cial­ly true if you rely on social media for learn­ing about health. 

Recent­ly, the issue of teenagers using Tik Tok for men­tal health infor­ma­tion has tak­en the spot­light. The hash­tag “#men­tal­health” is pop­u­lar on Tik Tok, with videos tagged with the hash­tag accu­mu­lat­ing more than 88 bil­lion views (as of June 2023). Many of the videos are from peo­ple shar­ing their per­son­al expe­ri­ences, and not from health­care pro­fes­sion­als — and these videos are often laden with mis­in­for­ma­tion. Teens are using this infor­ma­tion to make incor­rect self-diag­noses and are even believ­ing Tik Tok influ­encers over their own providers.

Even if you only stick to rep­utable sites with accu­rate infor­ma­tion, like the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion (CDC), you could eas­i­ly mis­di­ag­nose or mis­treat your­self. Diag­noses and treat­ments rely on fac­tors like your med­ical his­to­ry, not just a list of symp­toms, and the inter­net doesn’t have the con­text or expe­ri­ence to make an individual’s diagnosis. 

This doesn’t mean the inter­net is always unre­li­able — it’s a great way to read up on a med­ical con­di­tion to get the basics or to con­nect with oth­ers going through some­thing sim­i­lar so that you don’t feel alone. But stick­ing sole­ly to the inter­net rather than vis­it­ing your provider is risky. 

There Is Good News

While it’s impor­tant to avoid self-diag­no­sis and self-treat­ment, it’s also impor­tant to embrace self-aware­ness. You know your body — if some­thing feels wrong or is mak­ing you wor­ried, lis­ten to your instincts and don’t ignore your symptoms. 

And then, call your provider. Not a search engine.

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  • Adem Shuaipaj, DO - Oak Lawn Family Doctor

    One of my greatest joys is partnering with my patients on their road to wellness. Every situation is unique and requires personalized care. With mutual collaboration, we will overcome many obstacles.