03/08/2013 12:19 pm ET

Internet Search Could Give First Glimpse Of Potential Drug Side Effects, Study Finds

The Google search page appears on a computer screen in Washington on August 30, 2010.       AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM        (P
The Google search page appears on a computer screen in Washington on August 30, 2010. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/GettyImages)

Internet search results could offer up clues about potential negative side effects of drugs, according to a new article in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association.

The findings suggest that it's possible to deduce potential drug side effects based on symptoms people search for online, long before the side effects are officially known and confirmed.

The study, conducted by researchers from Stanford and Columbia universities, focused on paroxetine, an antidepressant, and pravastatin, a cholesterol-lowering drug, which were found to raise blood sugar as a side effect in 2011. The researchers wanted to see if Internet searches for high blood sugar as a side effect of these drugs were being made before the side effect was officially recognized in 2011, by examining Internet searches in 2010.

The study included the analysis of search results from 6 million people, who gave consent to have a browser add-on installed onto their computers. The add-on tracked search results during 2010 on the major search engines Google, Yahoo! and Bing.

Researchers found that one in 250 people searched for a common drug during the study period. Plus, those who searched for both paroxetine and pravastatin had nearly a doubled chance of also looking up high blood in association with the drugs.

"The prolific use of web search to pursue information can be likened to a large-scale distributed network of sensors for identifying the potential side effects of drugs," the researchers wrote in the study. "There is a potential public health benefit in listening to such signals, and integrating them with other sources of information."

Internet searching habits can give more than just a clue into potential drug side effects -- past research has shown it can play a role in tracking flu spread in the U.S. And it's not just Internet search -- social media could also shed important light on our health. For some ways Twitter can gauge public health, click through the slideshow:

What Twitter Tells Us About Health