It’s Probably Not Cancer: 5 Reasons to Steer Clear of Online Symptom Checkers

3 minute read

By Selena Singh

We’ve all done it; as soon as we feel a cough coming, we rush to the computer to find out what illness we have. Online research is valuable, but symptom checkers have issues. You can learn more about the diagnosis process with a search online.

Online symptom checkers aim to help us uncover possible illnesses by providing an ordered list based on the information we provide, but should they be trusted? Many sources suggest they shouldn’t. Here are 5 reasons to avoid online symptom checkers.

They Have a Low Diagnostic Accuracy

The most important thing to remember before you take an online symptom checker seriously is they’re very inaccurate. A recent study demonstrated that online symptom checkers only provide the correct diagnosis in the first three results 51% of the time. In other words, you’re no better off than flipping a coin to decide which illness you could have.

Doctors, on the other hand, have about 85% to 90% accuracy when it comes to diagnoses. There are many factors that may lead to the low accuracy of online symptom checkers, especially the fact that diseases are complex and the way they present themselves among individuals varies.

They Don’t Take Into Account Your History or Lifestyle

One reason online symptom checkers shouldn’t be trusted is that they don’t know you personally. Therefore, they can’t take into account your health or family history, your lifestyle, or your baseline (i.e. what’s normal for your own body) the way that you and your doctor can, together. For example, you may have been born with a harmless birthmark, but if someone else has an unusual mark that spontaneously appears on their skin later in life, it could be a good reason to have a test for skin cancer.

An online symptom checker can only go off of the information you feed it, so it could never be as accurate as having the opinion of doctors who have known you for years and can use information from your medical records to help diagnose you.

They Can’t Diagnose You Based on How You Look

Doctors don’t spend (at least) six years in medical school so you can diagnose yourself using a symptom checker. They study the body extensively, along with all the things that could possibly go wrong with it. When you visit a doctor, they not only listen to what you tell them initially but also observe you to see if something looks abnormal. An online symptom checker simply can’t do this. Even if you try to input your physical symptoms, there are sometimes things you can’t see about yourself that another person can.

They May Be Misleading Since Many Conditions Share Similar Symptoms

There are many symptoms that are present in various conditions. How many times have you seen “headache” listed as a symptom for something? Just because you have a headache one day, doesn’t mean you should worry about having a brain tumor, even if an online symptom checker tells you it’s a possibility. The headache could be from stress, a lack of sleep or, in some cases, an illness such as diabetes or the flu.

If you’re not a health expert, it could be hard to discern between the symptoms and decide which illness you may have, if any. The truth is, most of the time, we’re not very logical when it comes to our own health. Driven by fear, we often fixate on the serious conditions such as cancer, instead of the relatively minor ones such as a cold, when looking at an online symptom checker.

They May Cause Unnecessary Anxiety

Most of the time, there’s nothing seriously wrong with us, but seeing “cancer” as a possible illness on an online symptom checker can be scary and cause us to worry unnecessarily. There’s actually a term for this type of escalated anxiety: cyberchondria. This condition can cause individuals to become stuck in cycles where they not only increase their anxiety but may also prolong their illnesses by delaying a legitimate examination by a doctor.

Prolonged anxiety can also give rise to illnesses by weakening the immune system. So, instead of being like the average American who spends about 52 hours each year looking up health information online, why not pay a quick visit to the doctor? It’ll save you lots of time and put your mind at ease. And, if something is actually wrong, your doctor can help you to treat it safely and efficiently.

Selena Singh