When I was a child, a pale specter used to call our house most evenings, eager to chat with my doctor father about her myriad medical concerns.
We called her the "White Bread Lady," a moniker she earned for one particularly inane call in which she panicked to my father after consuming white bread.
She wasn't breaking out in hives or having any adverse effects to the bread. No, she was just concerned that some future illness could befall her given that one particular dietary decision.
Although we all laughed at the time, it was with a bit of shifty-eyed shame. Because most of us (including if not particularly the illustrious Ehrlich family) have lurking within us our very own "White Bread Lady," ready to convince us that each cough, sniffle and less-than-nutritious meal might be a detriment to our health.
And, naturally, that White Bread Lady looms even larger when we can type our worries into a search bar and unlock a bevy of potentially distressing information. Yup, so quoth Google, we all have cancer.
According to a recent report from the Pew Research Center, 80% of Internet users have looked up health information online. While that practice can be beneficial in some respects, the abundance of (variably valid) information online can turn us into e-hypochondriacs. (Or, worse, can lead us to neglect getting the care we need.)
Read on for five mistakes -- courtesy of a selection of health-care professionals -- that people make when diagnosing themselves online.
Your eye is twitching like an overly caffeinated college student sitting behind a pretty girl in lecture hall, twirling his pencil and hoping to catch a whiff of her lovely shining hair.
You type "eye twitch" into Google and come up with a really rad website that explains that this newfound spasm is actually an indication that your third eye is fixing to open, revealing to you wonders untold. You are the chosen one. Too bad that this trove of "medical information" is actually some dude's fan-fiction site.
Sure, the above is an extreme example, but, as Dr. Kevin Pho of KevinMD.com pointed out, "There's a lot of bad information on the Web and information that can be dangerous." Especially if you're not considering who put up that information in the first place.
Pho urges users to favor Web addresses ending in .org and .edu when looking for reputable health-care info, and to check who is funding the collection of that information. "There's so much information from organizations trying to sell products or push their agenda on the Web," he said.
He suggests turning to sites like Mayo Clinic as well as troves of information curated by doctors (like Pho's own website) when trolling the Web for info. And, of course, if a site mentions trolls and third eyes, one should definitely press on.
Flailing in forums
If there's one thing people like to do online, it's talk about their problems -- especially mundane things like coughs and headaches and their babies' various and sundry discharges. And, it seems, we're pretty interested in reading about the health issues of others, too.
According to that Pew study, 23% of social-network users have followed a friend's health experiences online, and 34% of Internet users have read about someone else's medical issues on newsgroups, websites or blogs.
That's all well and good; sharing experiences with others is enriching! Unless the people you're sharing with are idiots.
Case in point: Here's a Yahoo Answers thread in which folks are discussing whether you can make a pregnancy test out of bleach and Pine-Sol. (Spoiler alert: You can't.)
"You can easily fall into that rabbit hole and find some forum that really isn't relevant but maybe sounds kind of close," warned Craig Monsen, co-founder of symptom-checker app SymCat and fourth-year medical student at Johns Hopkins University.
On the other hand, "sometimes you'll stumble on exactly the right forum where someone has your same exact problem, and their solution does help."