The dangers of self-diagnosing online

Lesley Dobson / 28 November 2016

Why diagnosing your health issues online could end up making your problems worse.



When that niggling symptom that appeared a few days ago, won’t go away, what do you do? Make an appointment with your GP, or turn to the internet for an online diagnosis?

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A new national survey, carried out for the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, (RPS) has found that just over half (51%) of us (adults in Great Britain), self-diagnose when we aren’t feeling well, or are experiencing medical symptoms.

The survey was carried out online, and over three quarters (78%) of those involved said they had gone to the internet for medical advice. A further 10% had used health apps on a range of devices to check online for health information.

Some of those who took part in the survey – 43% - admitted that they had gone further, and had taken pain relief medicine that wasn’t prescribed for them, following their self-diagnosis.

Whose prescription are you taking?

It seems that some of us don’t stop at self-diagnosis when it comes to our health – we’re even prepared to borrow prescription medicines from family and friends. “It’s shocking that 43% of those who self-diagnose have borrowed pain relief medication prescribed for someone else to treat their own problem without advice,” explains Neal Patel. “These medicines can be addictive and cause other serious side-effects. If you have severe pain it should always be investigated properly.” Never take someone else’s prescription medicine. And if you or anyone else has left-over prescription medicines, take them to your pharmacy, where they will make sure they are safely disposed of.

More and more of us are looking online for information on our health problems. Research carried out by Opinion Matters for Saga in June 2016, found that one in four people have been tempted to self-diagnose using the internet, because it’s easier than visiting a GP. *

Going online to gather information has become part of our lives, from finding out what the weather is going to be doing, to checking our bank accounts. But when it comes to researching our health it’s important not to place all your faith in online sources.

Relying on websites to help find out what may be wrong with you can be risky. For instance, you may delay seeing your GP because you think you’ve found the cause of your symptoms. Or your online self-diagnosis may suggest that you have a serious condition, which has made you too worried to see your GP.

Why men miss signs of serious illness

“Delaying a visit to the doctor by using websites to self-diagnose could prevent someone from getting an accurate and early diagnosis,” says Dr Claire Knight, Cancer Research UK’s health information manager.

“Finding cancer early when treatment is more likely to be successful is really important to give patients the best possible chance of surviving their disease. Chances are it won’t be cancer, but it’s important that anyone experiencing anything that’s not normal for them, to go to their doctor to get checked out.”

Cancer isn’t the only condition that needs treating as quickly as possible to give you the best chance of recovery. Many health problems respond better to treatment if they’re caught early.

Visit our cancer section for more information on signs, diagnosis and treatment

As Lucy Wilkinson, Senior Cardiac Nurse at the British Heart Foundation explains; “With a wealth of information at our fingertips, it can be tempting to self-diagnose online, but this could lead to a delay in seeking medical treatment for something that could require urgent attention. In the event of a heart attack for example, ‘time is muscle’; the longer the treatment is delayed the more likely there will be irreversible damage to the heart muscle.

“The signs and symptoms of heart disease vary but could easily be mis-diagnosed as anything from asthma to indigestion when self-diagnosing online. If you are over 40, visit your GP for your free NHS health check to assess your risk of developing cardiovascular disease. A physical assessment by a healthcare professional will always be more effective than an internet search.”

Learn more about heart disease

If you do feel the need to check your symptoms online before seeing your GP, make sure that you choose a reliable symptom checker website. This is important because some websites may give you information that isn’t accurate, or clear. If you use a number of online symptom checkers, you may find that they give conflicting information.

Dr Google: staying safe online 

The Isabel Symptom Checker is based on the system that medical staff, including doctors and nurses, use to help them diagnose conditions. Is also on other health websites, these include the Patient website symptomchecker.isabelhealthcare.com and on Net Doctor, at www.netdoctor.co.uk/symptom-checker.

If you are worried that you may have a specific condition, and really want to do some online research, it’s a good idea to go to a site that’s specific to the condition. Here are a few examples:

However, you should never rely on symptom checkers alone. If you do have a health problem that isn’t clearing up, or is getting worse, see your GP as soon as possible. The earlier you have treatment, the better you chances are of a good recovery.

As Neal Patel, Head of Corporate Communications at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, says: “DIY diagnosis can be downright dangerous. You could be missing something a pharmacist or doctor would know was important. Whilst there are good online sites, there’s an awful lot of nonsense out there too.”

* Research carried out by Opinion Matters for Saga between: 17th June 2016 and 20th June 2016 amongst a sample of 2,008 adults aged 18+


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.