A new study has uncovered a large community of nervous adults who are sharing photographs of their genitals to a popular website to crowdsource diagnoses and doctors have warned that the spread of misinformation could have dire consequences.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), was led by Dr Alicia Nobles and Dr John Ayers of the University of California.

They found thousands of people were taking their sexual health concerns to Reddit, in particular its r/STD subreddit.

Reddit is a large social media site with over 300 million users that is organised into smaller communities, or subreddits.

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r/STD, which boasts that users can find "anything and everything STD related", sees users sharing photos and stories with other users, often to seek a diagnosis or second opinion.

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Researchers analysed a total of 16,979 posts between 2010 and February 2019, noting that the number of monthly posts has risen from fewer than a dozen to up to 500 in eight years.

58 per cent of all posts explicitly sought a diagnosis, according to the study, and 31 per cent of those included a photograph of the symptoms.

Dr Eric Leas, a co-author of the study, warned that the figures were likely to be conservative.

"Our case study is especially conservative at estimating how common crowd-diagnoses may be because no one would expect that thousands of people would be willing to share pictures of their you-know-what on social media rather than seeing a trained physician," he said.

Most queries on the site were replied to, many in less than a minute.

"Try getting a doctor's opinion in that time," said study co-author Ayers. "But fast doesn't mean accurate."

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Post titles include: "What is wrong with my penis"; "Left ball feels heavy" and "Is the dermatologist wrong?"

Second opinion

The study found 20 per cent of crowd-diagnosis requests were made after the patients had already received a diagnosis from a medical professional

"On one occasion a patient had received an HIV diagnosis but turned to a crowd-diagnosis to be convinced the doctor was wrong," said Ayers. "People when faced with life altering information often want to delude themselves and in some cases they are finding it on social media."

One person sought a second opinion on an HIV diagnosis. Photo / Getty
One person sought a second opinion on an HIV diagnosis. Photo / Getty

The researchers found that treatments suggested by users go against doctor's orders. "Apple cider vinegar cures all according to the crowd on social media," added Nobles.

Ripple effect

Researchers warned that the risk of misinformation spreading online from false diagnoses presented a risk to public health.

"A misdiagnosis could result in the continued spread of the disease," said Nobles. She added it "may also have a ripple effect for the millions who view the post and perceive they have a similar condition which they then wrongly self-diagnose".

Doctors worry the online diagnosis trend could risk public health. Photo / Getty
Doctors worry the online diagnosis trend could risk public health. Photo / Getty

"Even if users responding to a crowd-diagnosis were trained experts, social media was not designed to deliver health care," added Dr Davey Smith, another researcher on the study.

"I personally would not feel comfortable responding with a diagnosis to many of the requests we observed nor would I be able to ensure that those I diagnosed received safe and effective treatment. But in the future that may be possible."

Bigger risk for Kiwis in cities

Figures released earlier this year show that Kiwis are more likely to catch a sexually transmitted infection if they're living in a major city, although one of the country's smallest regions took the title of chlamydia capital.

Auckland topped the country for the number of syphilis cases recorded and the gonorrhoea rate for the year to the end of March, according to figures released by the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR).

But, the Tairawhiti District Health Board region had the highest rate of chlamydia, closely followed by Lakes District, then Hawke's Bay.

Meanwhile, the West Coast ranked lowest for prevalence of all three diseases.

What you need to know

Syphilis

• The first sign of syphilis is a sore or ulcer at the site of infection, usually the genitals, anus or mouth. Untreated, it can lead to rashes, swollen glands, fever, hair loss, aches and warty growths.

• Late-stage syphilis can cause damage to the heart, brain, nerves, eye, blood vessels, liver, bones and joints.

• The disease is spread through sexual contact and is infectious if not treated with antibiotics.

Gonorrhoea

• In women, symptoms include unusual discharge, tummy pain, bleeding between periods and pain when urinating. In men, they include unusual discharge, irritation of the inside of the penis, sore testicles and pain when urinating.

• Without treatment if can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, ectopic pregnancy, infertility and sterility.

• It is spread by skin contact during sexual intercourse and can be treated with antibiotics.

Chlamydia

• Most people with chlamydia have no symptoms but left untreated it can damage a women's reproductive system.

• However, in women, symptoms could include discoloured discharge, pelvic pain, bleeding between periods, pain during sex and rectal pain and bleeding. In men, symptoms could include discharge, sore testicles, pain urinating, pain during sex and rectal pain and bleeding.

• Chlamydia is spread by sexual contact and can be treated with antibiotics.

Source: Ministry of Health