Lyndsay Buckland: Internet diagnosis can be confusing

Internet diagnosis can be a worrying business. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Internet diagnosis can be a worrying business. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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The internet can be a scary place – cyberbullying, trolls, viruses that invade your hard drive with a simple click of a mouse. Also quite frightening can be the experience of trying to diagnose yourself, or a loved one, using just a few words put into a search engine.

What you certainly don’t want to be doing is Googling vague symptoms at 1am, as I found myself doing last week. Scary does not come close.

A simple search for the terms “coughing and sweating child” brought up all manner of suggestions, some reassuring, most quite the opposite.

One website helpfully suggested 125 conditions linked to coughing and sweating. These ranged from the more reassuring (a common cold) to the unlikely (cocaine withdrawal) to the downright terrifying (pneumonia, lung cancer, heart failure).

Often, each page tempts you to click on another link, then another, and before you know it you’ve diagnosed yourself with a medical dictionary’s worth of conditions you never knew existed. Or maybe that’s just me.

Whatever your internet diagnosis method, it is worth considering the websites you’re using and their target audience.

One site which frequently appears in search results is NHS Choices – an English NHS website. It presents information in an easy-to-use way and in simple language. It also flags up when the data was last updated and when it is due to be reviewed again. A similar Scottish website – NHS Inform – also exists, though it appears less frequently in search results.

When looking for reliable sources, it is worth considering who has produced the information. Most charities provide good information, including Cancer Research UK and the British Heart Foundation. Importantly, they also signpost you to the places where extra help and information can be found.

It is always worth checking if a website has been supported with funding from a particular organisation. For example, drugs companies may fund sites around a particular condition for which they produce medicines. This does not mean to say the information they provide is inaccurate, but it helps to know from what kind of starting point it may have come.

Also worth considering is whether a website originates in the UK or elsewhere. For example, the United States may have different treatment approaches due to their insurance-based healthcare system.

Whatever conclusions you come up with, it goes without saying that you’ll want to check your diagnosis with a qualified doctor. As for the coughing and sweating child, I’m pleased to report he is coughing and sweating a bit less now.