Today, medical websites, health information blogs, health care forums and "symptom checkers" provide individuals with an opportunity to investigate their own medical ailments. These sites are used daily by patients around the world as a means to formulate a medical diagnosis.

While the Internet contains a wealth of information, some of which is very useful, these online sources cannot offer the personal and individual diagnostic reasoning provided by your physician. Consequently, individuals who rely on these sources for a diagnosis of their ailments can put themselves at risk.

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Physicians agree that an educated patient is best to assist their doctor in making a proper diagnosis. However, a patient that is educated or familiar with certain symptoms, and a patient who is able to articulate his or her symptoms and concerns is much different than one who is self-diagnosing.

Though patient symptoms may seem similar to many different syndromes, diseases can vary greatly. Fainting, for example, may be caused by serious ailments such as heart disease or stroke, but are more commonly caused by much less serious issues such as anxiety, stress or dehydration. Nonetheless, patients may become unnecessarily frightened if their symptoms lead them to believe they have a grave or terminal illness.

Studies suggest that as many as 80 percent of the population have used the Internet to look up medical complaints. Regrettably, there is often misinformation found online. Physicians therefore emphasize that patients avoid visiting "generic" websites for their medical information. Often, people who create a medical blog will have an agenda other than sharing health-care information. For example, if a patient had a bad experience with a physician or suffered a devastating misdiagnosis, their true goal may be to frighten other patients who may be in a similar situation.

The best medical websites are those that are not influenced by personal experiences, are devoid of advertisements or commercial bias and are generally affiliated with major hospitals, government agencies or authored by national physician leaders and researchers.

Below are a few examples:

The Mayo Clinic (www.mayoclinic.com) is a comprehensive medical site which offers a "symptom checker" enabling patients to input information and explore the potential causes of their disease.

WebMD (www.webmd.com) is a comprehensive medical website run by leading health-care experts. It offers many different tools, including news and updates on current medical topics including a health and wellness newsletter.

Drugs.com offers a "drug interaction checker," which allows patients to input their medications and explore possible interactions with prescription and over-the-counter medications.

National Institutes of Health (www.nih.gov) is a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This informative site allows patients to access many health resources, including information on diseases, preventative health care and up-to-date clinical studies.

Health Central (www.healthcentral.com) is a comprehensive website offering patients clinical resources and information on diseases and wellness tools to promote healthy living.

Center Watch (www.centerwatch.com) is a leading source of clinical trial information for both clinical research professionals and patients. It enables patients with pre-existing diagnosed ailments to review many of the ongoing clinical trials throughout the entire world.

Many patients are obsessed with researching their medical conditions. Therefore, it is important to remember that troubling symptoms do not always signify a bad thing. Most symptoms generally turn out to be from benign causes. For example, just because a patient has a cough, that does not necessarily mean you have lung cancer. Most of the time a cough is from a cold, allergies or even indigestion. The point is, do not unnecessarily frighten yourself. Misdiagnosing your illness can be worse than what is actually wrong. Make an appointment to see your physician as soon as possible. If your symptoms are severe, go to your local emergency room and have your complaints evaluated. Education is a wonderful tool when used properly. Remember to surf with care.

Dr. Michael Schwartz is board certified in internal medicine with a private practice in Darien. For comments or questions, visit his website at www.drmichaelbschwartz.com