It happens about once a week. As I scroll through Facebook and peruse the latest happenings, I notice that someone (usually a mom of small children, like me) has posed a question to their Facebook friends about some type of health dilemma.
“Little Sally is cutting teeth, and she’s miserable. What can I give her to make her feel better?”
“Johnny has such a bad cough, and he can barely breathe. Anyone used Vick’s Vaporub on a baby before?”
“Took Sam for his 4-month checkup today. Dr. says I should wait to start giving him baby food until 6 months, but I feel like he’s ready. Any moms have some advice?”
I’ve seen each of these health concerns voiced on Facebook along with many others. Various friends weigh in with their tidbits of advice or personal experience, and usually the mom will choose from those options and then report back about how that advice worked.
Here’s the problem: all health information isn’t created equal.
And crowdsourcing for medical advice isn’t likely to result in the best outcome for your child.
Although the Facebook community recommended several products for Sally’s mom to try to ease teething pain, they were likely unaware that many of these products are no longer recommended for infants because of serious health risks associated with their use.
While Johnny’s mom’s Facebook friends offered enthusiastic support for rubbing Vick’s VapoRub on his chest, feet, and even putting it under his nose, they didn’t know that this product can be harmful to children under two years of age.
And, while pediatricians recommend solid food starting at 4 to 6 months of age, Sam has eczema, and eczema is often related to food allergies. There were special circumstances that likely affected the pediatrician’s recommendation. But, the Facebook community probably didn’t know that.
There are some areas of life where it is reasonable to take a poll on Facebook for answers we are seeking. Searching for a reliable mechanic in town? Looking for the best Indian restaurant in your neighborhood? Trying to choose which color to paint your dining room? Great! Ask away.
When it comes to our children’s health, though, we are seeking more than opinion- we need expertise. I don’t want to pick just any old medicine to give my child; I want to be sure to give them the medicine they need that isn’t going to hurt them. I want to to be sure that I’m doing the very best for them. To do that, we’ve got to look for our information in the right places.
Know where to go for good information
There are a few resources that I always turn to in those dire moments. You know the ones-when your child wakes up in the middle of the night sweating profusely with a high fever or your kid fell and hit her head and you think she’s fine, but you just need some reassurance that everything’s okay.
In those moments, I find myself fighting my panicked feelings and the overwhelming urge to pack my kid in the car right away and head to the emergency room.
Here’s where I turn when I need reliable information:
Caring for Your Baby and Young Child, 5th Edition: Birth to Age 5. Author: The American Academy of Pediatrics
My Child Is Sick! Expert Advice for Managing Common Illnesses and Injuries. Author: Barton D. Schmitt, MD, FAAP
And here’s a helpful tip: If you’re a first-time parent and you register for the Publix baby club, you will receive, “Caring for Your Baby and Young Child” by mail for free.
One person’s experience isn’t always reliable
Although it is incredibly tempting to ask other people’s advice in that time of need, keep in mind that many times one person’s situation may be very different from our own. They may have tried something that is potentially dangerous, and (lucky for them!) didn’t have a bad outcome. You (or your child) might not be that lucky.
When our friends make recommendations to us, they are giving us their personal opinion based on their personal experience. Sometimes, that can be extremely helpful, but recognize that sometimes that experience may not translate into your own. It is often better to ask the opinion of a physician who has likely seen hundreds of patients and read hundreds of clinical studies and can give a broader, more balanced view of the benefits, risks and potential outcomes for your situation.
When in doubt, ask your doctor
It sounds so simple, but I still believe it to be the best advice: call your doctor. If you aren’t sure the best way to care for your little one, your pediatrician is your best resource. Speak with a nurse in the office if you’re looking for medicine for your child’s cold. Take a list of questions to your child’s next check-up to anticipate the issues that will be coming up. Ask your doctor which books he or she recommends for your child’s specific health issues- whether it’s allergies, teaching them to sleep through the night, or healthy eating.
And, hopefully, you’ll have all of the information you need. That way, you can stick to the fun stuff on Facebook.
Courtney Schmidt is medical communications editor, Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children. She blogs at Illuminate.