Navigating Internet Medical “Advice”

Navigating Internet Medical “Advice”

What happens when you tell someone you or someone you love has food allergies? Hopefully you’re surrounded by wonderfully supportive people who respond with questions like, “What do I need to know to help keep you safe?” At some point, you’ve likely encountered someone that told you about her neighbor’s aunt’s daughter who gave up processed food and was suddenly cured. Maybe someone asked you if your milk-allergic son could have skim milk instead of whole milk. You heard about experimental treatments and you heard about suspected causes. You were told to introduce foods early, to hold off on giving foods until your child was older, and a host of other things. 

It’s not just what you hear from others, either. It’s what you see online. It’s a comment in a social media support group for families living with allergies. It’s a meme shared by your aunt. It’s a news article posted to a page you follow. It can be hard to keep up with what’s accurate and good and what’s bunk. Here are a few tips to help you sort it out. 

Go to the Source

Your cousin just forwarded you a link to an article referencing a study about peanut allergies. Before you take it to heart, look for the source. Does the article refer to a specific study by a named (and reputable) research organization? If you do a quick internet search on that organization’s name and a few keywords about the study, what comes up? Is the information repeated on the organization’s page or does the shared article misattribute something to a notable resource? 

Is it Peer-Reviewed? 

Where was the research in question published? If you’re reading a layman’s article on the topic, it may say something like, “in a study by [institution] published in the New England Journal of Medicine.” That’s an important tool to helping you define whether the info you’re looking at is potentially legitimate or not. Before you run forward with this info, ask yourself, “Is the New England Journal of Medicine a peer-reviewed journal?” (Yes, by the way, it is.) Peer-reviewed means that before the article was published, it had to be reviewed by other experts in the field. In other words, folks that are more informed than you, me, and your cousin, kicked the tires on this one and decided it was medically sound. Remember step 1 here. Check the mentioned peer-reviewed journal to see if this study is indeed published there. 

Who Else is Talking About It?

Are reputable allergy experts, advocacy groups, and publications sharing the news? What’s the buzz? Bookmark resources like FARE, FAACT, Kids with Food Allergies, and Allergic Living. Follow leading allergy experts like Dr. Dave Stukus on social media. Check with medical associations like American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Did the report about a new treatment for food allergies that your uncle passed along to you appear to be on the radar of these folks? If not, you may want to look a little closer at what Uncle Joe is sharing. 

Too Good to Be True?

No one wants to live with food allergies and no doctor wants to hold back crucial information that could help you give up restrictions and risk. When your neighbor tells you about some magic concoction that worked to cure her nephew’s best friend, hit pause. Best kept secrets are probably not what they’re cracked up to be when it comes to health-related topics. If it’s secret and not widely used, it’s probably not an actual cure. 

Dot-what? 

Every website has a “dot” followed by a small jumble of letters. Those letters tell you something about the website’s owner and can help you determine whether the source is one you can depend on for accurate information. 

  • Sites with “.gov” addresses are associated with US government agencies. So for example, if you’re reading a very sciencey article on the website ncbi.nlm.nih.gov good job. You’ve found the National Center for Biotechnology Information, which is a great place to find reputable documentation on current scientific research. 
  • Sites with “.edu” are associated with educational institutions. Have you landed at research.jhu.edu? Nice job. You’re on the site summarizing research by John Hopkins University.
  • Sites with “.org” are connected to non-profit organizations like professional organizations and advocacy groups. We shared a few of them above under the “Who else is talking about it?” subheading. 
  • Sites with “.com” are owned by commercial websites. This doesn’t mean the info you’re digging up isn’t valid or helpful. It may mean that the company sharing it has financial interest in the study or information sharing and you should weigh that you’re reading with that bias in mind. Sometimes these sites are also owned by publications and other media outlets. Are they referring to reputable sources and pulling information from places that pass the sniff tests we’ve run through so far? 

Has the Treatment Been Through Human Trials?

That amazing new study that sounds like it’ll be absolutely groundbreaking may eventually be absolutely groundbreaking. It may also be a great bit of research that looked good in theory but proved to be not quite as impressive by the time it made it to human clinical trials. Take note of where in the process exciting new studies are. Testing in mice? Theorizing in computer models? There are reasons to be hopeful and to keep an eye on how things progress, but don’t start making appointments to get yourself whatever treatment is being examined quite yet. There’s still a long way to go. 

Ask Your Doctor

Hopefully you have a good relationship with an allergist you trust. (If not, it’s time to look for one!) If you’ve done your due diligence and you still aren’t sure, ask your allergist for their thoughts on the manner. Actually, even if you are sure, talk to your allergist. Even accurate research isn’t pointing to the right course for every patient. Ask your doctor to help you better understand what the info you’ve been given means for you and your family specifically.

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