You’ve probably seen the posts you’re weird aunt makes: coconut oil cures cancer. Farts cure cancer. Leaving half an onion in your bedroom will cure any airborne ailment. Eucalyptus oil is as effective as commercial bug repellent.
Some of them are repetitions of old wives tales of medicine or folk remedies, and some of them are brand new. Of course, a large number of them are false, based on bad information or bad research, or are flat out scams. But, your aunt shared them, so they can’t be fake, right?
Unfortunately, a huge portion of articles and images (or memes) are false or a misrepresentation of the facts.
Are They All Fake?
No, not at all. Take the case of using eucalyptus oil as a bug repellant. It’s true – lemon eucalyptus oil that works as a deterrent for mosquitoes. There’s plenty of other examples of healthcare articles that are real out there – though, oddly, they often get less traction online because they don’t start with a premise you’ve often already heard. Only “groundbreaking” stories tend to go viral.
How do You Tell if it’s Real?
If an article or meme doesn’t cite any sources, don’t believe it. In any article you run across, it should always link to an authoritative source you can check out.
So, what’s an authoritative source? That’s a little harder to decipher. Generally speaking, if you can find a Center for Disease Control (CDC), National Institute of Health (NIH), or similar link, it’s good. Though, be sure to read the actual source article. Some articles have been known to link to places like the CDC, but not to an article that specifically supports the premise of the article.
While newspapers and TV station websites may seem like authorities sites for healthcare news, they aren’t. Similar to the “flatulence cures cancer” headline, often, the stories are poorly researched. Also, they are usually written by someone who doesn’t have a background in healthcare or doesn’t have the necessary time to properly research information in the story.
Going directly to the source paper on the subject from a medical research group or college is often the best bet. The downside is, often, the writing is written for an academic level and can be a bit difficult to read.
When looking at a research paper, also look at the group it’s associated with. It used to be a published paper was a great indicator of honest research. Unfortunately, their is now a profit model involved. For example, there are sites where anyone can pay to publish a paper without peer review. Peer review is the process where other experts in the field read the research paper and help determine the validity and repeatability of the research presented in the paper. Without peer review, it’s easy for bad science to slip through.
Finally, hitting Google and a number of fact checking websites can also quickly help clear up the truthfulness of a claim by providing links to research papers and authorities articles.
Why do They do it?
If people are writing tons of articles online, there must be a reason for it, right? Absolutely, sometimes it boils down to the usual suspect: money. Many sites don’t care what you read, just as long as you click on their link. They charge advertisers money for ads on their site, and for them, any clicks to their site is a good click. There’s even a term for this: click bait. Fandom is beginning to help reduce the “click here” article problem, but it’s going to be quite awhile before the problem slows down.
There are also websites that sell products, and any articles from them simply end up being advertisements. A website that claims to know the truth behind cancer (which we won’t link here) has a number of articles that all end the same way: buy our book. For $29.99 you can have an ebook version of their book, for for $59.99, a print copy. Or, it could be one of the thousands of websites that sell “supplements”, which are supposed to cure one problem or another. Those supplements don’t have FDA approval, which means they haven’t gone through testing to see if they truly are effective, even when they claim the products are “clinically tested”. If they were truly tested, getting FDA approval for them would not be too difficult.
Then, there are “anti-establishment” websites, which focus strictly around the idea that modern medicine is wrong. Unlike the two previous types of articles, these tend to not be as interested in making money. Instead, they are trying to spread information they believe to be accurate. However, often this information is based on bad science, rare cases, and sometimes even blatant lies.
Are They Actually Harmful?
Sometimes, no. For instance, cutting an onion in half and leaving it on your nightstand won’t have a harmful effect. At worst, your room will smell like an onion. This could potentially be unpleasant, depending on your feeling about onions, but would not directly cause harm.
However, there are times when various claims can be extremely unhealthy. A good example is “The Brazilian Diet Pill” that was being sold online for a while. Tons of websites touted the effectiveness of the pill, but failed to mention they contained a sedative (Chlordiazepoxide), Fluoxetine (you probably know it under the trade name Prozac), and an amphetamine (Fenproporex, which is not approved by the FDA). This combination of ingredients are not recommended without the supervision of a medical professional.
What Should You Do About Them?
The very first thing you should do: don’t share links and images to healthcare information you can’t verify. If you see information that sounds worth exploring, always talk to a healthcare professional about it first. While it may sound cool that coconut oil may clear up that weird new blemish on your arm, it’s best to go see your medical professional to make sure it’s not skin cancer and to make sure you get the right treatment. You already know your healthcare professional went through training. You can’t say the same about the random person at the other end of the keyboard somewhere on the Internet.
This article is for educational purposes only, and should not be considered medical advice. Healthcare is an individualized process, and reading an article online should not be your source for healthcare advice - instead, it's intended to help you better understand the process or healthcare, inform about a specific disease, or present the potential for lifestyle changes that may occur with a disease or disorder. Do no rely on online articles for healthcare - instead, consult your healthcare provider if you feel you may be suffering from symptoms presented in this article, or other symptoms not listed here.