24-year-old Poojith* woke up one day experiencing pain in his groin. Upon inspection, he found that his testicles had turned blue. Taken aback, he did what many of us from the internet generation would do: he googled why he could be having "blue balls". Results popped up one after the other but what scared him the most was that it could be a symptom of prostate cancer.
Much to his relief, he later found out that the condition was quite common and was caused by... prolonged erections. Not prostate cancer, but just trying to please himself too much. "Of course I freaked out about the cancer thing, but I wasn't going to believe it so easily. Everything leads to cancer on Google," he laughs now.
The paranoia is justified. Type "headache and vomiting" into the search bar and everything from migraine to pregnancy to brain aneurysm show up. Enough to freak anyone out.
But here's where Dr Google can go wrong - not only can it lead you to overplay your symptoms, it can also lead you to downplay them.
Dr Marina Varghese, a gynaecologist from Kochi recalls how a patient who was based abroad, self-medicated with an abortion pill she found online and concluded that the pregnancy had been terminated because she had some bleeding. "But she came to us in the fifth month of her pregnancy with multiple complications," says Dr Varghese.
There are other cases where prolonging that visit to the doctor can have psychological effects too.
22-year-old Robin had trouble falling asleep for almost two months because he thought he had bone cancer - he had a pain in his right shin. Then he happened to see an X-ray posted by a radiologist friend of his, featuring the shin of a person diagnosed with bone cancer with the same spot marked on the shin. "I thought it was a symptom for me too," recounts Robin.
He did not go to the doctor for two months fearing that it would validate his doubts. He also made the mistake of Googling bone cancer and its symptoms. And then when he finally made an appointment a week ago, it turned out to be... a partial slip disk. "Something that could be treated quite easily. But I was so convinced it was bone cancer. My grandmother died of leukemia. So the whole drama would play out in my head as well," he says.
While the anxiety ended for Robin after the doctor told him what it was, for some people, it becomes an obsession. Chennai-based psychiatrist Dr Jayanthini explains that with internet-based self-diagnosis increasing, there are more educated and middle-class people coming with psychological issues like 'somatic symptom disorder' and 'illness anxiety disorder'.
These disorders are differentiated by some technicalities but for the major part, have people believing that they are really sick to the point where they take to 'doctor-shopping' to validate their beliefs.
Dr Jayanthini has even come across people who laminate the prescription meant for a month and use it for years because they are convinced that the medication is keeping them healthy.
The fact that medication is available over the counter these days doesn't help either. She explains that many cluster symptoms like headache and nausea are common and so when people experience them, they may equate it with a disease that someone they know had with the same symptoms. Often people ask the other person about the medication they took and start taking it themselves.
And then there are quacks who make money out of these â€śpatientsâ€ť. "Quacks validate their doubts, show them a few slides to convince them that something is wrong and then and make lots of money out it," warns Dr Jayanthini.
Everyone from 14-year-old students to 80-year-olds is prone to these things today, says Dr Jayanthini. "And it's difficult to treat them because you cannot tell them they are imagining it. They won't believe you. You convince them first that nothing is wrong with them, then you observe their symptoms and then you break down for them how they got here. Sometimes in the initial stage we have to prescribe anti-depressants and anti-obsessional drugs also," she says.
So what's the way around it? "People are not going to stop turning to the internet to understand their bodies. So the best thing to do is to note your symptoms and cross-check with a doctor. And even that can happen online. But it's of utmost importance that they do so," asserts Dr Varghese.
(*Name changed on request)