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Web health tips may mislead

Published: Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Updated: Wednesday, February 6, 2013 02:02

 

Though they’re cyber-fueled and lack the official medical practitioner’s title, Internet health sites are a contagious trend among students, resulting in interesting diagnoses and possible malpractice.

With all of the medical and informational resources available to people today, it’s often easy and instinctual to look up symptoms and remedies online. Websites such as WebMD and Mayo Clinic offer varied diagnoses based upon searched symptoms, but the diagnoses themselves can be incredibly dire.

“I have chronic lung problems, and online it always says I have bronchitis and tuberculosis and pneumonia,” said Derek Morcom, junior environmental geosciences major. “I freaked out about it at first but then I realized I shouldn’t take it so seriously.”

The ease of researching symptoms online has led to the coining of a new phrase: cyberchondria. Hypochondria is the psychological state of conviction in which one believes they have a serious illness—maybe many at one time. Cyberchondria adds a modern element to the word, as people go online to find a diagnosis for symptoms.

“If you look up something like a runny nose, it can take you from anything to a flu or an aneurysm,” said sophomore industrial distribution major Mary Monday. “I think sometimes it makes you really nervous about something that’s probably nothing.”

It’s an important danger to recognize. Self-diagnosis can cause paranoia and result in people attempting to treat something they very well may not have.

“If you have a cold or a runny nose, maybe a sore throat, and you diagnose that, that’s okay,” said Dr. David Teller, physician at the Specialty Clinic of Student Health Services. “It’s when you start diagnosing something like strep throat and attempting to treat yourself that the problem begins. There’s a balance between a self-diagnosis that makes sense and a self-diagnosis that doesn’t make sense.”

There is an important distinction here, Teller said, especially when something like antibiotics are involved. Certain medications might work well in some cases and adversely in others — even sometimes making the situation much worse than it was.

“Other than over the counter stuff, I never recommend taking somebody else’s meds or any antibiotics or stronger medication you have left over from another illness, because any bacteria you have left in your system from your first bout could have built up a resistance,” Teller said.

Medication errors are a leading cause of death, usually when prescription-strength medicines are involved. Drugs used for psychological problems like depression, sleeping disorders and mood disorders are medications most likely to be abused.

Jessica Szeto, Class of 2012, said it’s easy for her to find symptoms she has in a variety of diagnoses and that the websites generalize illnesses in a basic and sometimes misleading form.

“One day, I came across paranoid personality disorder and used the checklist of symptoms to diagnose myself,” Szeto said. “Some of the symptoms I had, but in reality, they’re minor and don’t have a big impact on my well-being and the people around me.”

Teller said cyberchondria has caused a trend with students, leaving many paranoid and over reactive.

“I can’t remember the last time somebody actually had a thermometer at their house or their apartment,” Teller said. “Students will come in, saying they have a fever, but they don’t even have a thermometer. They just felt hot and assumed that that meant they had something.”

Teller said students should look to the basics at home before self-prescribing or taking the time and money for a doctor’s visit. He said things like a thermometer, Tylenol and Motrin are handy in the case of minor symptoms and illnesses. If conditions don’t improve, Teller said to skip WebMD and see a professional.

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