How to Find Accurate Health Information Online

Does conflicting information on the Internet leave you scratching your head? Image: David Castillo Dominici /

Does conflicting information on the Internet leave you scratching your head? Image: David Castillo Dominici /

Did you know only 13 states require that sex education in public schools be medically accurate? This leaves a lot of people in the dark when it comes to making decisions that could have a lasting impact on their lives. Luckily, the Internet can make accurate information about sex accessible. It can also be a dangerous tool if wielded incorrectly, so it’s important to differentiate sources of good information from unreliable sources. An article in the New York Times suggests that the No. 1 way teenagers get their information about sex is through the Internet. Whether or not they receive medically accurate information depends on their search results.

You can’t assume that a product’s legality is evidence of its efficacy.

The Internet is a maze of conflicting information. Most reputable authors will cite their sources, and it’s important that you check them. Online message boards can be filled with anonymous commenters offering opinions, anecdotes, falsehoods, or facts — unless these commenters back their statements up with sources, it may be difficult for you to evaluate their claims. A message board dealing with sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) might seem like an ideal outlet for someone who is concerned about having an STD; other message boards dealing with sex or contraception offer a similar refuge. Users might appreciate the anonymity afforded by such online communities, but it’s important to remember that the people there are also anonymous. The Internet “hive mind” cannot substitute for a professional diagnosis, scientific consensus, or medically sound advice.

Other dubious sources of information might include “alternative health” websites. Many of these practitioners give good advice, like to quit smoking, start exercising, and eat fresh fruits and vegetables. We can’t argue with that. Sometimes, though, these communities can encourage the use of unproven remedies in place of effective treatments. A quick Google search for “natural contraception” can lead you to websites promoting mixtures of herbs for preventing pregnancy, and a search for “herpes cures” might leave you thinking that earwax or homeopathy can stop an outbreak in its tracks. Nonscientific ideas about the immune system also give rise to medically inaccurate statements about vaccines, such as the idea that “natural” HPV infections are preferable to being vaccinated with Gardasil — despite the facts that natural HPV infections might not confer effective immunity against re-infection and can lead to cancer.

We have written before about bogus STD cures — some unscrupulous dietary-supplement companies make false claims about their products’ alleged abilities to cure STDs. It is important to be able to read between the lines when evaluating the claims made by dietary-supplement manufacturers. Are they providing you with evidence, or merely with advertising? The FDA has a list of signs of false claims, including:

  • statements that suggest the product can treat or cure diseases
  • statements that claim the product is “totally safe,” “all natural,” or has “definitely no side effects”
  • personal testimonials by consumers or doctors claiming amazing results
  • promises of no-risk “money-back guarantees”

Additionally, as reported by Harvard University Health Services, the Food and Nutrition Science Alliance developed a list of “red flags of junk science.” Some of these red flags include:

  • recommendations based on a single study
  • dramatic statements that are refuted by reputable scientific organizations
  • recommendations based on studies published without peer review

Certainly many of these bullet points apply to the claims of some of the companies that were cited by the FDA last year for peddling bogus STD cures. Even when in compliance with the FDA, manufacturers of dietary supplements still might not offer much evidence for the claims they make. They may point to a single study or they might cite a long list of irrelevant studies. They may be banking on the likelihood that very few people will bother to read the studies or be able to understand the dense jargon in which peer-reviewed articles are often written. The FDA regulates dietary supplements differently from how they regulate pharmaceuticals, so you can’t assume that a product’s legality is evidence of its efficacy (or even its safety).

While it’s good to develop a finely honed baloney detector, it’s also important to know where you can find reliable information. At the risk of tooting our own horn, we think Planned Parenthood provides fantastic information on sex, sexuality, safer sex, and STDs. Other great websites include:

There’s a wealth of information in cyberspace waiting to be put to good use. Knowing how to evaluate sources, claims, and evidence is empowering on a personal level, and integral in making good health-care decisions.