Using the internet to self medicate could damage your health

When Purva Mehta started depending on painkillers to ease her chronic backache regularly, she didn’t realise that it could lead to long-term kidney damage. Similarly, when Rakesh Chhabria decided to treat his daughter’s viral fever using over-the-counter medication suggested by a random health website, he was unaware that it could cause further complications for his child. Purva and Rakesh are not alone. A recent study estimated that an increasing number of people (in India and around the globe) have no qualms about self-diagnosing and depending on the internet to answer their medical queries. While the world wide web is a good place to seek information, relying on it completely to address medical situations is not a good idea, say experts.

Self medication can have severe repercussions
Self medication can cause serious health problems, which can even be permanent in worst case scenarios. Leading diabetologist Dr Pradeep Gadge says that there are various reasons why people choose to self-medicate. “I feel the most important reason are freely available search engines on the internet. People, who read articles online, assume that they know everything. They tend to underestimate a doctor’s clinical experience and consider self-medication an easier option rather than taking a doctor’s appointment, waiting in his consulting room and paying him. Over-the-counter (OTC) medication given by chemists without any prescriptions is another important reason. Marketing on TV/radio by such OTC companies is also responsible. Often, we see a patient taking a diabetes medicine just because his friend suggested the same. This is more harmful than people realise,” he explains.

Internet users increasing daily
Adds general physician Dr Abhay Vispute, “The number of internet users in India is increasing daily. Statistics show that internet usage is close to 27 per cent in India among the age group of 25 to 34. This age group is considered to be the young decision makers, who have a habit of searching everything on the internet. Information is available on their fingertips. A doctor with post-graduation spends almost 10 to 12 years of his/her life in studying the complexity of the human body, physiology, medicine and surgery. But internet-savvy individuals assume that they can understand the indications or contraindications of a disease or procedure within minutes. When an individual learns about the symptoms or severity of a disease, it benefits the person, true. However, it gets risky when someone with half knowledge wants to interfere in the treatment. Social media has also become flooded with medical content, such as information on procedures which are under clinical trials or remedies for weight loss or cosmetics, and so on. This condition of Googling the disease itself is a disease and is known as cyberchondria!”

The importance of visiting a doctor
So, what are the side-effects of self medication? Says Dr Gadge, “There can be numerous side-effects of a drug, which may not even be listed on the internet. Also, a doctor is trained to pick up subtle signs, which a layman may not even notice. For example, recently a young Type 1 diabetic lady came to me with imbalance, dizziness and her gait was such that it seemed she was intoxicated. She had taken multiple opinions before coming to me. However, the cause could not be found. She was self-medicating herself with huge doses of vitamin B6. It is usually a common belief that vitamins are very safe, especially vitamin B since it is
water soluble. I stopped her vitamin and her imbalance disappeared. This was actually a rare side-effect of vitamin B6.”

Adds Dr Vispute, “A majority of internet users, who use it for self-diagnosis, cause anxiety for themselves. It is very important to go to a doctor and discuss your problems because the relevance used by search engines can confuse between the answer of a question asked and the likelihood of different explanations. People who use the internet very frequently (cyberchondria) to self diagnose should remember that all systems in the human body are interconnected. For example, giddiness is a symptom of brain diseases as well as heart diseases. Doctors have studied all the systems — they know what they’re doing! While using the internet for information is fine, please clarify the same with your doctor because what you think is a brain tumour, might juts be a cluster headache.”


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