It’s an internet joke at this point: Google an innocuous symptom like a sore knee or persistent headache, and 10 minutes later, an online symptom checker gravely warns you that it might be cancer. In a panic, you rush to the doctor, who prescribes aspirin and urges you not to search for symptoms anymore.
It really does happen, according to Manhattan podiatrist Emily Splichal in an interview with The Outline. Splichal often sees patients who believe normal pigmentation under their toenails might be skin cancer. Inevitably, those patients have all visited the same health information database that displays a prominent warning about melanoma under fingernails and toenails. Patients panic because the information is presented without additional context and most of them lack a clinical background themselves, she says.
On social media, mental health self-diagnoses are on the rise, according to Banner Health. Behavioral health professionals have seen an increase in teens and young adults who self-diagnose themselves with conditions like ADHD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, autism and Tourette syndrome after viewing mental health content on the short video platform TikTok. According to ADDitude Magazine, social media sites like TikTok may help destigmatize mental illness and validate real symptoms, but the short videos also oversimplify complex conditions like ADHD. Moreover, anyone can post a video — not just experts.
Knowledge about our bodies and our health is useful, but self-diagnosis can be downright harmful, according to Verywell Health, and patients should use their research to supplement conversations with health care providers, not replace them entirely.