Whether it’s a strange ache in the abdomen, dizziness, or a sudden rash, millions of Americans are rushing to Google their symptoms instead of rushing to see the doctor. It’s a trend commonly referred to as cyberchondria—consumers conduct their own web health research, which frequently leads to misdiagnosis and inappropriate treatments.

How big is the trend? Seventy-nine percent of Internet users without chronic conditions search online for health topics, according to The Pew Internet & American Life Project.

The report also showed that 86 percent of Internet users who have a disability or chronic illness looked for information online. They were more likely to report that their web searches influenced their treatment choices, interaction with their doctors and their ability to cope with their condition.

Several factors are fuelling cyberchondria. First, some studies show that patients are often reluctant to challenge their doctor’s opinions or recommendations. It’s easier for a patient to go to the Internet for more information. In many ways, this puts power back into the hands of patients, many of whom, have felt for a long time that doctors held all the power when it came to healthcare.

Another reason is access. Instead of getting dressed and driving a few miles to see a doctor, you can simply head over to your computer in your pajamas and with a simple search, find information on everything from acne to xenophobia.

Insurance companies, such as Aetna, are also playing their part. In one press release, Arthur Leibowitz, MD, Aetna U.S. Healthcare’s Chief Medical Officer, said: “The Internet offers physicians and other health care professionals a valuable and rapidly expanding array of resources — including professional publications, research results, health news and educational tools — that they are using to improve the quality of health care.”

Many patients hear a statement like that and figure if the Internet is a reliable tool for doctors and nurses to use, it’s good enough for them.

Where the Danger Lies

Health professionals train for years and are familiar with important factors such as differential diagnosis (the probability that you have one illness instead of another with similar symptoms), contraindications for drugs, and recent advances in treatment that work better for patients.

They understand the importance of a medical history and personal history in any diagnosis. Also, they have another important ability that cyberchondriacs may not have when trying to figure out their symptoms: Objectivity.

Here’s where objectivity counts. In a report conducted by Microsoft on cyberchondria, researchers point out that brain tumors occur in only about 0.002 percent of the population. Yet, for a web search on “headaches,” 25 percent of the results related to brain tumors. The impression that an e-patient could get is that it’s a very likely cause of their headache.

Also, a search for stomach ache can reveal dozens of illnesses with this symptom, leaving you, the patient, to narrow down the likely illness. The result? Panic and fear — all over a common symptom that could be caused by the greasy grub you ate last night. Or, you use the wrong treatment and make yourself sicker.

How to Use Web Health Research Safely

By all accounts, health-related Internet searches aren’t going away—so it’s best know how to conduct your online research to avoid putting your health in danger.

  • Visit only reputable sites, such as hospital and government sites. The Mayo Clinic, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) provide well-researched health information.

  • Also sites by highly-reputed associations and universities are good choices, such as the American Cancer Society, the American Hearth Association, Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide, or Johns Hopkins Medicine.

  • Verify sources if you do use lesser-known sites for health research. Check studies they refer to and sources they site to verify the information.

  • Use web health research as general information, not for diagnosis (even your doctor may need to do tests before he can reach a diagnosis).

  • Never treat yourself based on information you find on the Internet. If your symptoms persist, get a real second opinion — from a doctor.