LONDON, England (CNN) -- Maybe you have a cough that won't go away or you've found an odd lump in a usually lumpless part of your body. You're worried -- could it be serious?
Pick and mix medicines online
Visiting your local doctor used to be the first port of call, then maybe to a pharmacy to pick up a prescription. But the Internet has changed all that.
Medical sites have proliferated where users can plug a list of their symptoms into search engines and receive an instant diagnosis.
Drugs to treat many illnesses are also available on-line without the need to go via a doctor to obtain a prescription. Research has also shown there is a boom in home testing kits for fertility, blood pressure and diabetes.
It is the do-it-yourself doctor revolution. We are becoming more educated about health matters due to the abundance of health related sites, yet are we getting the right information? And how likely are drugs ordered from the Web to be geniune?
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the U.S. has issued strong warnings about buying drugs on-line.
They say, "We cannot warn people enough about the possible dangers of buying medications online. Some Web sites sell medicine, such as prescription and over-the-counter drugs, that may not be safe to use and could put people's health at risk.
"Buying such prescription and over-the-counter drugs online from a company you don't know means you may not know exactly what you're getting."
A UK survey released this week said two-thirds of men look online for medical information and drugs, while only a third will actually visit their doctor.
Luke Lalor, 30 of Munich is typical of many men who go online for medical advice.
"I always check first what I might have or if it's serious on the net before going to a doctor," he says. "I'm privately covered but still have to pay the bills, put them in, get them back and they're not cheap so rather than all the hassle I do a bit of research first."
According to UK research of those two-thirds that look on-line, 77 percent said they were likely to use the Internet to look for symptoms of illness; 66 percent to search for advice; 44 per cent to look for medical research; and 43 percent to search for drugs and medications -- taking advantage of unregulated online pharmacies.
Professor Ian Banks, President of the European Men's Health Forum told the Telegraph newspaper: "Men in particular should be reminded that buying medicines via the Internet without considering consultation is no substitute for an accurate diagnosis by a health care professional of what may be a serious, underlying medical condition."
Lalor also says he "self-medicates often" due to difficulty in buying many over-the-counter drugs in Germany.
"Ibuprofen in Germany is prescription only. Codeine, an opiate for example, is only available to terminal patients. Imagine my chagrin after having had broken my arm, had it drilled and screwed back together, stitched back up and then handed a prescription for 100mg tablets of ibuprofen."
Going it alone with health
While recent release by Michael Moore, "Sicko" looks at the sorry state of many hospitals and the high costs of medical treatment many are opting to treat themselves at home to avoid waiting periods, high costs and "embarrassment."
Consumer group Mintel recently released a report into the self-diagnosis market. A spokeswoman said: "People are finding it increasingly difficult to get a doctor's appointment, (which) means many are choosing to go it alone when it comes to their health."
More and more people are "taking their health in their own hands" by turning to web sites for medical advice and cures, say Mintel.
"The Internet has revolutionized the way in which people manage their health, enabling them to self-diagnose as well as monitor their own well-being," says a Mintel spokeswoman.
The report found the market for self-diagnostics has enjoyed strong year on year growth of almost 6 per cent per year since 2002 to an estimated value of £99 million in the UK alone in 2007. Its future forecast was "the market is expected to gather momentum in value sales growth to be worth an estimated £159 million in 2012."
The report said the reasons for the spike in growth were due to a number of factors:
- Growing use of the Internet and at-home testing kits offers a more discreet means for people to diagnose illness, making pharmacists and doctors a last port of call.
- Young people typically adopt a more gung-ho approach to their health, preferring to test themselves at home before seeking professional advice.
- Many young adults may be too embarrassed to go to the doctor for tests and will prefer to take charge of their health in the comfort of their home.
Sometimes people turn to the Internet for help as a last resort, after visits to numerous doctors have failed to turn anything up.
Ten years ago Briton Jon Danzig started to experience some worrying symptoms -- his voice deepened, the shape of his face altered, his shoe size gradually increased, he suffered acne, depression and exhaustion. He visited a battery of medical experts but the doctors found nothing fundamentally wrong with him. Anxious about the symptoms and sure he wasn't "imagining things" Danzig turned to the Internet for help: "It was only by becoming a more informed patient that I eventually added up the sum of all my symptoms and discovered for myself what was wrong with me."
He had acromegaly, a complicated serious illness caused by a non-cancerous tumor of the pituitary gland, lodged at the front base of the brain behind the eyes.
Research on the Internet helped Danzig understand his condition and enabled him to seek out experts who could help treat it. He told CNN: "Using the Internet as a resource is a good idea as well as going to the doctor -- rather than as a replacement. A good doctor will welcome a patient who takes responsibility for their own health and the bad doctors will resent that."
His advice for people going on-line to diagnose themselves is to be discerning in where they get their information. "People can put information out there that is inaccurate -- you have to learn how to be discerning. I would only get information from reputable web sites or medical journals. I tend to steer clear of people selling a product."
While some medical Web sites can provide misleading information, Internet chat rooms can be a minefield of misinformation, particularly since many of those giving advice in chat rooms are not medically qualified.
This week on a Yahoo chat forum a 24-year-old Englishman has posted this worried query: Could I have cancer? "I have got a big lump on my rib. Am 24 and worried sick."
Readers responded by reassuring him that he was "probably too young to have cancer."
Danzig warns against getting too much information about your medical condition from chat rooms.
"I do tend to avoid chat rooms -- its important to talk and share information but some of the information may not be reliable at all. People do go to chat room and talk about their problems with complete strangers who may not have medical qualifications. It could make you feel a lot worse and put you on the wrong track." E-mail to a friend