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Google searches may provide a look into the drug epidemic

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Posted at 8:58 PM, Jul 31, 2017
and last updated 2017-07-31 20:58:25-04

Online search data can offer a look into the drug epidemics sweeping across the nation, according to The Washington Post.

Data from Google Trends show that searches about drug withdrawals have doubled over the last decade, according to the Post. While a percentage of these searches are most likely made by people who are simply curious about the symptoms of drug withdrawals, evidence suggests these numbers reflect a large number of drug users searching for answers for themselves.

The Washington Post says a large number of the searches are concentrated in regions where the drug epidemic is high. In 2015, for example, Ohio was among the top four states where people were most likely to search for drug withdrawal on Google. The same four states - which also included West Virginia, Kentucky and New Hampshire - had the greatest incidents of overdose deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The Washington Post also looked at withdrawal searches and their correlations with the time of year to track actual use patterns. A similar pattern forms each year. Interest in withdrawal is highest at the beginning of the year, probably due to drug users making resolutions to quit. 

The publication then says interest drops off until mid-summer when vacations, nice weather and a slight break from mental stressors may encourage some user to try quitting.

Interest in withdrawal declines again, with a noticeable decline around Thanksgiving and Christmas. The Washington Post cites the holidays as a well-known trigger for substance abuse in many people. The lack of interest in withdrawal suggests more people are using drugs, according to the news outlet.

The Washington Post comes to two conclusions based on this data. First, these results may prompt friends and family to encourage those they know who use drugs to stop using during peak withdrawal interest times, or be a support system during peak disinterest. Second, they show that Google may provide real-time search data for public health experts. Health researchers may be able to track drug outbreaks as they happen.