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How Googling turns the common cold into a rare brain disease

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We’ve all done it: Google searched “sore throat” and came to the conclusion that we couldn’t have anything but a particularly rare and incurable case of cat scratch fever. But don’t be too quick to blame your overactive imagination for those panicked self-diagnoses.

The structure of the Web page you visited might be partly to blame. The order in which symptoms are listed online has a big impact on how we perceive our risk of having that disease, a new study from the University of Warwick found.

In the study, participants were a shown of list of symptoms for a fictional form of cancer. In the first group, three general symptoms, like drowsiness, were listed first. Then three more specific symptoms, like a lump in the neck, were listed. In the second group, the specific symptoms were listed first followed by the general symptoms. For the third group, the specific and general symptoms were alternated.

The participants in the first two groups concluded that their risk of having the disease described was much higher than the participants in the group with the interspersed symptoms. In another test, patients who read a list of six symptoms for a disease felt like they were at a higher risk than those who read a list of 12 symptoms.

Researchers concluded that the way symptoms are organized makes a significant impact on how people perceive their chances of having that disease. And since 79% of people without chronic illnesses use the Internet to self-diagnose, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, the researchers worry that the way info is presented could lead to unnecessary panic and doctors’ visits.

“[Our healthcare system] could be further overstressed if common symptoms are listed together, leading people to increase their perceived risk of having a disease and therefore increasing visits to their medical doctors,” said Dr. Chris Olivola, who led the study.

And if you do head to the doctor to check out what ails you, make sure you tell it like it really is — 32% of us admit to stretching the truth to our doctors, according to a WebMD poll. So even if you’re convinced that you’re part of the 0.01% of folks who have that exotic tropical disease, remember that the doc almost always knows best!

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