More than a quarter of Britons regularly diagnose themselves by going online — indeed many now Google their symptoms before consulting a GP or pharmacist, according to a recent survey.
‘We live in a digital world and young people in particular regard it as the norm,’ says Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs.
‘But the problem with Googling your symptoms is that the results are only going to reflect the information you put in — and not the bigger picture, what else is going on in your life, your medical history, and so on.
‘What indicates that tiredness could be a result of a medical condition is when it’s accompanied by another symptom,’ says Professor Stokes Lampard
Therefore, the answer will not be tailored to you — and some of the results can be very alarming. Not only that, but information about tests and medication can vary between countries.’
The advice could also be wrong.
So what are the burning health questions driving Britons to Dr Google? As you will see from the top ten questions here (identified by Google Trends and ranked in popularity), the questions are sometimes surprisingly mundane.
But will the internet give you the right answer? We asked leading experts to provide the useful information you can really trust.
1 IS TONSILLITIS CONTAGIOUS?
DR GOOGLE SAYS: This question highlights Dr Google at its best —and worst. For while many sites give the correct answer, others say the exact opposite!
THE EXPERT: Tonsillitis itself is not contagious, explains Janet Wilson, a professor of otolaryngology at Newcastle University and consultant ear, nose and throat surgeon at Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Trust.
‘Tonsillitis refers to inflammation of the tonsils — and it typically occurs due to infection from a number of viruses or a type of bacterium called streptococcus.’
Tonsillitis itself is not contagious, explains Janet Wilson, a professor of otolaryngology at Newcastle University and consultant ear, nose and throat surgeon at Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Trust
Strictly speaking, you cannot ‘catch’ tonsillitis from someone else. However, ‘the viral or bacterial infections that cause it can be picked up from someone else who is infected, via coughs, sneezes, touching contaminated surfaces — or direct contact, such as kissing’, Professor Wilson says.
This can lead to tonsillitis, as it causes an immune response which leads to inflammation of the tonsils. ‘But it’s likely you won’t get ill at all.’
Indeed, a study of more than 1,400 siblings of children with group A streptococcal sore throat found that just 4 to 5 per cent caught the illness — ‘so transmission risk is very low even with close family contact,’ says Professor Wilson.
‘You’re certainly much less likely to develop it compared to highly contagious conditions such as measles, or even colds and flu.
‘What determines whether you get tonsillitis is your susceptibility — in particular, how the tonsil tissue responds — to bugs such as streptococci,’ she explains. ‘Up to 20 per cent of us carry streptococci with no symptoms.
‘Your susceptibility may also vary over a lifetime. Some people only get tonsillitis in childhood, others only as adults, while some will suffer all the time.
‘What we do know is that after the age of eight, girls are more likely to get tonsillitis than boys — and by the age of 15, they are twice as likely. This may be linked to puberty and hormones.’
So why is this the most popular question on Google? ‘I suspect that it is because there is no vaccine against it — yet! — and because tonsillitis is one of the most common human diseases,’ suggests Professor Wilson.
2 WHAT IS SEPSIS?
DR GOOGLE SAYS: Type this question into the search engine and up will pop dozens of official NHS pages with accurate information. But when it comes to treatment, a number of sites suggest certain vitamins and minerals (vitamin C and selenium in particular) can be a cure, which is misleading, say those with the real expertise.
THE EXPERT: ‘Sepsis is a life-threatening condition that arises when the body’s response to infection goes into overdrive’, explains Dr Ron Daniels, chief executive of the UK Sepsis Trust and an NHS consultant in intensive care.
‘This can be due to anything from a urine infection or a bite to pneumonia. ‘In trying to fight the infection, the body over-reacts and attacks its own tissues and organs.
‘Blood vessels open up, causing blood pressure to plummet — and organs such as the heart and kidneys become starved of blood and oxygen. If not treated quickly, sepsis can rapidly lead to organ failure and death.’
Sepsis is also known as blood poisoning or septicaemia. ‘The three terms can be used interchangeably, but the latter is a bit old-fashioned,’ Dr Daniels adds.
‘It is the UK’s biggest killer after cancer and heart disease and every year, around 44,000 people die from it, usually because of a delay in diagnosis — the symptoms are often mistaken for everyday illnesses, such as flu or a minor viral infection.’
‘Sepsis is a medical emergency — seek help urgently if you develop any of the following: slurred speech or confusion; extreme shivering or muscle pain, passing no urine (in a day); severe breathlessness; you feel like you’re going to die (a key symptom); mottled or discoloured skin.
‘Whatever you do, don’t waste time with vitamins and minerals,’ says Dr Daniels. ‘This idea is off the back of one small study published this year that found a high-dose intravenous drip of both helped patients in intensive care.
‘You need to get medical help. Over-the counter vitamin supplements won’t help.’
3 HOW TO STOP SNORING
DR GOOGLE SAYS: As well as perfectly reasonable tips, this search prompts a huge and baffling (and frankly, alarming-looking) array of gadgets, from jaw slings to mouth splints.
THE EXPERT: ‘Loud snoring can become grounds for divorce and people are also becoming more aware of the health risks associated with it — such as high blood pressure — so it’s easy to see why so many want advice,’ says Mike Dilkes, a consultant ear, nose and throat surgeon at the Hospital of St John and Elizabeth, London and author of Stop Snoring The Easy Way: And The Real Reasons You Need To.
‘But while there are many “cures” you can buy on the internet, the vast majority will be a waste of time: and the biggest culprits are throat sprays.’
‘Loud snoring can become grounds for divorce and people are also becoming more aware of the health risks associated with it — such as high blood pressure — so it’s easy to see why so many want advice,’ says Mike Dilkes
People who snore have a blockage of some sort — either in their nose or throat: ‘either way, this blockage makes it harder for air to pass through while they sleep,’ he explains. ‘A common cause is that when we sleep, the muscles in the mouth and back of the throat relax and obstruct the airway. Therefore, you need to tackle the blockage; and the theory that a throat spray is going to fix that is ridiculous.’
However, there are some remedies you’ll find online that may work. ‘One old favourite is sewing a tennis ball in to the back of your pyjamas,’ says Mr Dilkes. ‘It will stop you sleeping on your back, so the base of your tongue will not collapse into your throat.’
The best way to tackle snoring is to increase muscle tone in the airways, explains Mr Dilkes — start with the following exercise: Open your mouth as wide as possible, then poke your tongue out as far as you can. Hold the position and move your tongue in an up, down, side-to-side movement.
‘After two revolutions, hum the national anthem in as deep a pitch as possible until the end of the song or for at least two minutes, whichever comes first.’ Do this every night before bed. ‘You should start to notice a difference almost immediately,’ he suggests.
4 WHY AM I ALWAYS TIRED?
DR GOOGLE SAYS: With around 88 million results for this question, suggesting everything from a food intolerance to adrenal fatigue and leaky gut syndrome, how can you tell what’s the most likely cause?
THE EXPERT: ‘This is indeed one of my patients’ most common complaints,’ says Professor Stokes-Lampard.
‘By far the most common culprit is modern lifestyles: trying to do it all. Many people work full time, have kids and parents to care for, try to have the perfect home, go to the gym, and so on — no wonder they feel tired all the time.
‘Tiredness can also be a very common warning sign of stress and anxiety.
‘What indicates that tiredness could be a result of a medical condition is when it’s accompanied by another symptom,’ she adds.
‘For example, the most common medical reason for tiredness is an underactive thyroid, which can also cause a sensitivity to the cold, weight gain, constipation and depression.
‘Or if you feel tired and look pale, this could be a warning sign of anaemia.
‘Tiredness that’s something potentially more serious — including cancer — is when it’s accompanied by unexplained weight loss or bleeding and/or any new lumps and bumps under the skin. Symptoms such as these always warrant a trip to your GP — don’t rely on the internet.’
5 IS SHINGLES CONTAGIOUS?
DR GOOGLE SAYS: No.
THE EXPERT: This is right — ‘you can’t “catch” shingles from someone else,’ explains Professor Judy Breuer, director of the division of infection and immunity at University College London.
‘Shingles is a painful skin rash caused by varicella-zoster virus, which also causes chickenpox.
‘After you’ve had chickenpox, the virus lies dormant in your nerves and can reactivate at a later stage, usually when your immune system grows weaker with age.
‘This reactivated illness is known as shingles.
‘Therefore, anyone who has had chickenpox can get shingles, but you don’t “catch” it.’
She adds: ‘Shingles is only contagious if you’ve never had chickenpox — but in this case, you will get chickenpox, not shingles.’
It is the shingles blisters that spread the virus — if they weep then the live virus can be inhaled by other people.
The blisters can keep spreading the virus until the spots dry up, after around five to seven days. Shingles is not infectious before the blisters start.
6 HOW TO LOWER BLOOD PRESSURE
DR GOOGLE SAYS: With more than 193 million results for blood pressure or hypertension, there is an overwhelming amount of advice, supplements and products, to choose from. But where do you start?
THE EXPERT: ‘Many people with high blood pressure want to avoid taking drugs for it, so I’m not surprised it’s such a searched-for question,’ says Gareth Beevers, emeritus professor of medicine at City Hospital, Birmingham, and a trustee of Blood Pressure UK.
He suggests the first step is to buy your own monitor to use at home.
‘It really is the best way to keep track of your reading,’ he says.
‘In terms of treatment, it depends how high your reading is,’ he explains. High blood pressure is a reading consistently over 140/90.
‘If your blood pressure is sky high — by that, I mean the top number (which is the most important) is around 180, then medication is the first option as you’re at significant risk of a heart attack or stroke,’ says the professor.
‘Lifestyle changes don’t make a big or quick enough difference to be something to try first.
‘If the top number is 160 or lower, then it is worth trying some lifestyle changes.
‘First, reduce your salt intake — salt makes your body retain water, which increases blood pressure. The effect of cutting down salt can be huge — it could stop you needing medication.
‘Eating plenty of fruit and veg will help as it raises your level of potassium, in turn lowering the salt in your blood.
‘Taking more exercise and losing weight can also make a real difference. If you lose just over a stone, you can shave ten units off your blood pressure reading, which could take it into the healthy range.’
7 WHAT CAUSES CRAMP?
DR GOOGLE SAYS: The standard explanations are dehydration; a drop in electrolytes (such as sodium and potassium); and heat.
THE EXPERT: Dr Google is wrong, says Dr Gavin Sandercock, a reader in sports science at the University of Essex. ‘Contrary to popular belief, cramp is not due to dehydration or low levels of electrolytes: nor is it due to heat.
‘Cramp occurs when a muscle contracts (suddenly becomes shortened) but then fails to relax again and becomes locked into a painful spasm.’
Typically it affects the calf or thigh muscles and small muscles of the foot. Cramp often occurs during exercise because certain movements can cause the muscles to shorten but ‘forget’ how to relax. It also often occurs in bed because when you lie down, the foot points down and the calf muscles shorten.
Cramp typically occurs when a muscle is repeatedly stimulated, making it contract and become tired.
‘Receptors called Golgi tendon organs detect contractions and send a message to ‘switch off’ the signals to the muscle — so that it can relax again,’ says Dr Sandercock.
‘If the receptors don’t work properly the signals keep coming, the muscle keeps working and you get cramp. The Golgi tendon organs are more likely to go wrong when the muscle is fatigued due to exercise and can be affected by dehydration.
‘So cramp is more common when exercising, especially in the heat —but heat is not the cause.’
Stretching helps because it ‘switches off’ the contraction by relaxing and lengthening the muscle.
Some older people mistake muscle ischaemia (lack of blood flow) for ‘cramp’ when they are walking, particularly walking fast or uphill.
The cause of this ischaemic pain is the same as angina — so these pains are an early warning sign of possible heart disease.
Cramp goes away when you stretch the muscle — but this won’t happen with ischaemia.
8 HOW TO GET PREGNANT
DR GOOGLE SAYS: Some sexual positions are better than others; put your legs in the air for 20 minutes after intercourse.
THE EXPERT: ‘The internet is often the first place couples struggling to conceive turn to for advice — often because they’re too embarrassed to seek medical help,’ says Nick Macklon, a professor of obstetrics and gynaecology and medical director of the London Women’s Clinic.
‘However, the internet is a bit of a jungle — containing widely peddled myths about putting your legs in the air after sex, for example. There’s really no need — women’s bodies are designed to get the sperm where it needs to go!
‘What can make a difference is lifestyle. Smoking works like a contraceptive due to the damage it does to the sperm and eggs.
‘The internet is often the first place couples struggling to conceive turn to for advice — often because they’re too embarrassed to seek medical help,’ says Nick Macklon
‘Being overweight can affect sperm quality and cause hormonal changes that make it harder for a woman to release an egg, too.
‘Following a Mediterranean diet can help, while men should avoid anything that heats the testicles, for instance, sitting for too long or using laptops. Lastly, have enough sex — don’t get too fixated, just have regular sex every couple of days around the time a woman releases her egg, i.e. around days 12 to 13 after the first day of her period.
‘More than anything, focus on good sex, rather than any particular position! Research shows a stressed man can produce poorer-quality sperm as he hasn’t enjoyed sex as much.’
9 WHAT IS ADHD?
DR GOOGLE SAYS: Among a wealth of web pages describing Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder as the ‘most commonly diagnosed mental disorder of children’ sit those that claim ADHD is not a ‘real disease’ or that it’s down to bad parenting.
THE EXPERT: ‘In fact ADHD is now recognised as a neurodevelopmental disorder, rather than a behavioural one — it is not caused by poor parenting or a poor diet, though neither will help,’ says Dr Tony Lloyd, a psychologist and the chief executive of the ADHD Foundation.
‘A wealth of research shows that people with ADHD have structural and functional differences in the brain and we now have equipment that can test for the condition with 80 per cent accuracy.
‘In ADHD, the brain is slow to mature — and by the time it has caught up in maturity in a person’s mid-20s, they have already missed out on a significant amount of educational potential,’ adds Dr Lloyd.
‘The key symptoms are poor concentration, hyperactivity and impulsivity. Many people with ADHD also suffer from mental health problems — as many as one in five will attempt suicide and 40 per cent will have chronic anxiety.’
10 HOW LONG DOES FOOD POISONING LAST?
DR GOOGLE SAYS: Anything from a few hours to eight weeks, depending on the bug that caused it.
THE EXPERT: ‘Your symptoms can last anything from one day to several weeks,’ confirms Dr Lisa Ackerley, a food hygiene expert and deputy chairman of the International Scientific Forum on Home Hygiene. ‘And some types of food poisoning have an incubation period of a few days before the symptoms strike.’
‘One of the most common forms is caused by Staphylococcus aureus, the symptoms of which can strike within 30 minutes but also clear within a day,’ she adds.
Foods at highest risk of transmitting Staphylococcus are those handled by people but not cooked, such as sandwiches, pastries and sliced meat.
‘Other bugs, such as Campylobacter — the most common cause of bacterial food poisoning — is found on around 50 per cent of raw chicken but takes a few days for symptoms (usually painful diarrhoea) to show.
Listeria, often associated with soft cheeses, pates and ready-to- eat foods, can take several weeks to show symptoms. The problem is, you don’t know which pathogen you’ve picked up.
‘Many websites say you should clean surfaces and kitchen utensils using hot soapy water, but in my opinion to avoid potential food poisoning from bugs such as Campylobacter, you really should be using a disinfectant spray on surfaces and utensils, and wash utensils in a dishwasher.’