Why We Need To Stop Googling Our Illness Symptoms

When you feel even the slightest bit sick, do you immediately head to WebMD or another similar website to check out your symptoms? If so, you might want to stop doing that: In addition to the constant worry that you have an incurable disease it tends to inspire, a new study says online symptom checkers are wrong 66 percent of the time. That's two-thirds of the time, in case you're bad at fractions, which really is a lot when you're talking about your health.

The study, which was conducted by researchers at Harvard Medical School, looked at symptoms from 45 clinical cases and plugged them into 23 free online symptom checkers in the U.S., U.K., Netherlands, and Poland. They looked specifically at three types of cases: emergency care required, non-emergency care required, and self-care. The results will probably make you think twice before you use WebMD again: the online sources listed the correct diagnosis first only 34 percent of the time, with the right diagnosis listed in the top 20 possible causes 58 percent of the time. The potentially even scarier part? The sites only gave the right advice regarding next steps 57 percent of the time, so who the heck knows what they were telling people to do in the other 43 percent of cases.

The not-as-scary part is that at least when it came to identifying the degree of urgency, the websites were correct in 80 percent of emergency cases. But they were only correct in 55 percent of non-emergency care cases, and only 33 percent of self-care cases, which could explain why you were advised to seek medical attention immediately for the common cold that one time.

Overall the accuracy of the sites ranged from a really not comforting 33 percent to a pretty respectable 78 percent. In the U.S., the most accurate sites were found to be Healthy Children, Steps2Care, and Symptify, and now I'm concerned simply because I have never heard of any of those websites before.

So if you can't go to your usual online symptom checkers for reliable medical advice, what can you do? These three things are good places to start. They should be no-brainers, but they're always worth a reminder:

1. Visit Your Doctor

This goes without saying, but a doctor can do a much better job of diagnosing you than a computer. If you don't already have a primary care physician, websites like can help you search for a doctor by geographical location and specialty (you can even search by condition or procedure, too). Other good sites include and Castle Connolly, which can connect patients with doctors recommended by other doctors.

2. Make a Detailed List of Your Symptoms

Before consulting the World Wide Web, doctors recommend making a detailed list of your symptoms and their duration. They recommend this because sometimes, when you suspect you have a certain illness, you'll believe you have certain symptoms that fit with that illness (even if you don't) in order to confirm your hypothesis.

3. Consider Your Family's Medical History

It's also recommended that you examine your family's medical history and try to determine if the illness you are concerned you have runs in your family. If it does, it is more likely you may have it.

And if you're really sure you have an illness you can't treat with anything over-the-counter, you really should go to a doctor.

Images: Caden Crawford/Flickr; Giphy (4)