Funny Taste Mystery: Using Google for Medical Diagnoses

By Elizabeth Lang on 23 June 2009 19 comments
Photo: SNM

I have just recovered from a case of pine nut mouth, or at least that's what I'm calling a recent health hiccup.

And I have Google to thank for saving me thousands of dollars, countless trips to doctors, and plenty of time worrying.

It started about a week ago.  One morning I woke up, poured a bowl of generic brand Cheerios for breakfast, and seriously considered throwing the bowl out due to their terrible aftertaste.  I decided that it was a burned batch and having nothing else breakfast-worthy I begrudgingly finished the bowl.

But at lunch time, my leftover stir-fry didn't taste good either.  And by dinner I could only conclude that something was wrong with me.  Everything I ate had a terrible, terrible aftertaste.  Things just tasted funny.

That night I did a salt water rinse and brushed and flossed by teeth carefully, assuming that whatever it was would be gone by the next day.  I woke up the next morning and - forgetting about the bad taste in my mouth - made some toast.  I spit it out and quickly gulped down some tea.  The bitter taste was concentrated solely on the back of my tongue and the roof of my mouth and happened only after eating or drinking.  It was one of the strangest things I had ever experienced.

Normally I would make a quick call to my physician's nurse to see if making an appointment is necessary.  But since moving I haven't yet found a primary care doctor.

So, I turned to Google.  This is not  something I usually do for medical issues.  Typically one finds horror stories of all the worst possible things a symptom could point towards.

But, I searched anyway.  Something along the lines of "funny taste in mouth back of tongue roof of mouth aftertaste."  Definitely not a logical search, but I was desperate.   Reading through several forums I cam across countless possible causes -- from acid reflux to infections to neurological diseases.  But then someone mentioned pine nuts.

I had made homemade pesto the night before the funny taste started -- using recently purchased pine nuts.

So I did some more Googling.  "Pine nut mouth" turns out to be a fairly common problem.  A medical journal published an article about it  and Wikipedia even references the issue.  No conclusions are drawn about exactly what causes pine nut taste disturbances or how to get rid of it.  But people report this funny taste lasting for a week or more.  Mine lasted about 6 days.

Had I not spent 20 minutes searching on Google, I would have no doubt eventually gone to a regular doctor, then an ENT, had tests run, and spent a lot of money.  All because of pine nuts.

I would never advocate using Google to diagnose your most serious medical problems.  And relying on the internet for any sort of health answers can be dangerous.  But, as with my pine nut conundrum, sometimes self diagnosing on the internet can be very beneficial.

Here are a few tips for more effective medical searching:

  1. Don't believe everything you read.
  2. Be wary of open forums where anyone can post an answer.
  3. Do a more focused search if you find something that sounds promising.
  4. Look for trusted sources -- the Mayo Clinic and WebMD are both good sites.
  5. Use Google's Scholar search for journal articles.

What has been your experience using the internet to diagnose medical issues?  What other tips would you offer for finding trusted medical information on the internet?

(And If you like Dilbert, check out this strip about using Google for health diagnoses.  It's one of my favorites.)

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Xin Lu's picture
Xin Lu

One time my dog was limping and my mom searched on the internet for limping Pekingeses, and then she found that these dogs are prone to vertebrae disk ruptures and they're easily crippled from jumping.  She also saw some pekes with wheels on their backlegs.  This made her cry all night.  Then she took the doggy to the vet and it turned out to be just an urinary tract infection.  The doctor gave the dog a lot of water and some antibiotics and he was all healed after some furious peeing sessions.  Lesson learned is that internet diagnoses can often make you more frightened than you should be, and going to the doctor isn't a bad thing because you might have something more serious. 

Guest's picture

Home remedies via the Internet can be a mixed bag, but at least one has been very effective for me. Tea tree oil can be used to treat toenail fungus. Not only is it much cheaper than Lamisil, it's also better for your liver.

Guest's picture

So according to the medical journal, the bad pine nuts were from China. Did your pine nuts come from China too?

Guest's picture

I thought this was a very good article.

Guest's picture

I diagnosed my son's Obstructive Sleep Apnea through web searches (specifically an article from the American Academy of Family Physicians). He had been having symptoms for years and this was never picked up during a doctor's visit. My descriptions of his symptoms had never been taken seriously because they were fairly vague. When I brought in the article with the list of symptoms -- and my son's symptoms highlighted -- the doctor immediately agreed with my diagnosis and we pursued treatment. Thank goodness! He's doing so much better now.

When I was a baby, my mother diagnosed an obscure medical condition of mine by reading Dr. Spock. Saved my life.

Doctors are very busy, and you can't expect them to catch everything in 15 minutes. Do your own research, and bring your educated guesses to discuss with your doctor.

Guest's picture

You can get some good information about recent scientific discoveries from PubMed. You won't find any outrageously overhyped headlines like "X cures cancer!" here- just presentations of the facts and some tentative conclusions cautiously advanced along with the underlying assumptions. (Why must newspapers be so BAD at science reporting? Do they not even read past the articles' summaries?)

Pay attention especially to the things treated as facts. Unlike newspapers and magazines that will make any crazy assumption necessary to sell papers, most of the authors of these journal articles seem to keep their hype a bit more under control.

If you're not at a university, I suggest limiting your search to Free Full Text so that you can read the whole article and not just the summary. I also suggest looking at just the Review articles, as these will help give you the bigger picture and explain why two individual studies /seem/ to contradict each other.

Linsey Knerl's picture

I can totally relate to your experience, as Google was how I knew to bring up HSP or Henoch-Schonlein Purpura to our doctor when my son broke out in a strange rash that NO ONE could diagnose.  Had I not Googled before we went to the doctor, they would have sent us home AGAIN, costing us more money and wasting time that could have been used to make sure my son didn't go into renal failure.

I wrote about it at Parenting Squad:

Google can't always give you all the answers, but it sure as heck can arm you with some good info to make sure you get taken seriously at the hospital.  Thanks for this awesome article!

Linsey Knerl

Guest's picture

Pine or Pinon nuts are frquently used in Mediterainean cooking and a special delicacy for the American Indian. The Paiute tribe of northern Nevada has a special pine nut ceremony.
The CDC traced pine nuts taken from a rat's nest as the cause of an outbreak of the Hanta Virus that was fatal to many people in the Four Corner's region of the southwest in the mid 90's. Know your source.
There are also plenty of accounts of pine nut allergies similiar to other nut allergies, so be aware of any thing different you eat if you have any problems.
The metallic taste in pine nut mouth was interesting, I'll file that one away for further reference and let my other collegues at the urgent care I work at to add it to their diagnostic knowledge.

Guest's picture

Just as an aside. English walnuts are a decent pine nut substitute in pesto.

Guest's picture

I had a furious rash that I tried to compare to images on the net. I researched and someone mentioned diet pills. I had started taking diet pills a few weeks earlier. I stopped taking them and the rash cleared. Although I did not plan on going to the doctor over the issue, I am forever grateful that I found the source of the problem that was causing me so much pain and discomfort.

Guest's picture

While watching the new X-files movie, I noticed something. She was using Google to look up new procedures to treat a kid's disease. After thinking about this, I realized I use Google all the time to look up how to fix a particular issue on a computer or find the syntax for some ColdFusion commands.

My guess is that doctors are only humans too. They may know a lot about a particular field of interest or remember what they have ran across before, but they can't possibly know all the symptoms and cures for all ailments. I bet they used to have medical books that they looked to all the time, now they probably use the internet. They might have access to more credible sites than general Google searches but who knows. Don't get me wrong, they went through a lot of schooling to get their degree, but speaking for myself I'm lucky if I remember half what I ran across in college.

Guest's picture
Amy K

I used Google just a couple of weeks ago to diagnose an itchy rash on my lips. I suspected the mango I'd had the night before, and 5 minutes later I learned that mango skins have the same oil as poison ivy leaves.

Guest's picture

I have had the exact same experience since early this week, Tuesday morning. I did the same google search and came to your site. It is funny that you mention pine nuts because monday night, I went to a pizza place that has a great saled bar. I put a TON of pine nuts on the side of my plate...thought I would give them a try and I must have eaten three tablespoons worth. This MUST be the cause of my nasty taste and hopefully it doesn't last too much longer. I had even stopped eating the last day or so because I was getting so grossed out.

Guest's picture

I had the same thing....I thought it was my 'super' floride toothpaste...threw that tube out, but it's those crazy pine nuts! Thanks for sharing your story!

Guest's picture

I have the pine nut thing right now. We eat a lot of home-made pesto. I just wrote to Whole Foods to find out where they buy their store-brand pine nuts. It doesn't say on the bag. This has been driving me nuts, this awful taste, but I am relieve to know that it is no big deal and relieved I won't need to spend scads of time and money on doctors and tests.

Guest's picture

This is sooooo great. I agree that folks should be very careful regarding medical advice via the internet but..... if you use good sense and not take everything as fact it can really help.
I just had this issue. Bought some pine nuts at the store, added them to a salad and then it started. The very next morning and again until today. So I took a look before calling my Dr.
Yep, this is the issue and I checked the source, they are from China! No more of that stuff for us. Thank you for your comments!

Guest's picture

I am so happy that I found this site. I just made some homemade pesto and it tasted so good that I kept eating pasta for 2 days straight. Now i can't get this awful taste out of my mouth. And those f$%#n pine nuts were from Whole Foods too! I'm on my fifth day of this awful taste. I'm crossing my fingers that it will end soon.

Guest's picture

There's a cute joke from that show Parks & Recreation where one character is sick, and another character is sitting at a browser: "I put your symptoms into the thing up here and it says that you might have 'network connectivity issues'."

Guest's picture

I just had this very experience. Horrible taste at the back of my mouth after eating.
We had a lovely Thanksgiving salad with an abundance of : PINE NUTS.
Thank you Google and thank you for posting this. I agree, over searching health problems can be very misleading, but it gives you a head start on pinpointing what ails you. Next search: Iliotibial Band exercises for my aching knee/ hip ha ha