Unfortunately, the sheer quantity of online information makes finding what you want like getting a drink from a fire hose.

Unfortunately, the sheer quantity of online information makes finding what you want like getting a drink from a fire hose.

The secret to locating reliable health information is starting with a just-right website. At one end of the spectrum, search engines such as Medline are designed to be used by people who have medical training. People without that kind of background may find themselves drowning in technical terms and clinical studies.

At the other extreme are generic search engines like Google. Typing a health condition - or even worse, a symptom - into one of these all-purpose search engines is like asking for health advice from the next 10 people in the supermarket line. You may luck out and find a doctor or a nurse who knows something about medicine, but you're also likely to find plenty of people who have strong opinions based on little more than their own experience - or their desire to sell an ineffective product at inflated prices.

When someone you love is sick, you're already under stress. The last things you need are websites that have an ax to grind, a product to sell or a conspiracy theory to defend. Instead, like Goldilocks, you need a search engine that is "just right" - filled with sound, sensible advice from reliable scientific research and practical experience. Here are some websites that provide that winning combination:

WebMD.com has earned its reputation as a first-rate health portal. The site is staffed by journalists committed to impartial coverage of medical news. Content is reviewed by an independent medical board and clearly differentiated from advertising and sponsored messages. A special section about parenthood and pregnancy includes active bulletin boards moderated by experts, so online discussions stay civil.

Bing.com, a new multi-purpose search engine from Microsoft, is an exception to the rule about not using generic search engines for health information. Bing provides "quick tabs" on the left hand side of every search. These help you focus your search more precisely on treatments or causes. Also, the material that appears when you click on these tabs is drawn from a library of authoritative sources that are clearly labeled.

Righthealth.com functions like a standard search engine, but searches only health sites with a reputation for quality - such as medical journals, research institutes and non-profit agencies. The result is a "guide" that sorts information into helpful categories including articles, news, videos, research, reference, advice, organizations and even personal experience. The top of each search results page includes tabs that help you drill down to more detail if you want to know about symptoms, treatment, causes and prevention.

Healthline.com has a special symptom checker that lets you search for causes of common problems like headaches or earaches. For each symptom, the symptom checker generates a list of potential causes that includes a clear list of related symptoms, making it easier to zero in on what may be causing the problem. The site also has a treatment search tool that generates a very thorough list of treatment options, including alternative treatments graded for efficacy.

Health on the Net (HON) is an international non-profit organization that developed the first certification system for online health information. Now HON has a search engine which returns only sites that have met criteria for being trustworthy. By checking boxes, you can further filter your search results to get only sites with relevance for children, women, seniors or other specific groups. It's also worth bookmarking the Mother and Child Glossary which provides basic information about topics like pregnancy and common childhood illness. http://www.hon.ch/Dossier/MotherChild

Medlineplus.gov has remarkably easy access to a wide range of resources from the National Library of Medicine as well as the National Institutes of Health. In addition to a comprehensive medical encyclopedia and a dictionary of medical terms, the site offers directories of health providers and even information about health insurance. If your family is dealing with a specific issue such as autism or sports injuries, check the Other Resources section where you'll find a very complete list of organizations grouped by health topic. The patient or consumer sections of these specialized websites often are excellent sources of information about specific conditions.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) provides candid advice about the pros and cons of alternative practices, ranging from acupuncture to yoga, as well as supplements such as Hoodia and Valerian. Under the section entitled Be an Informed Consumer, you'll find detailed advice about evaluating health websites and information about what to do if your health insurer is unwilling to pay for CAM treatments.

No matter which site it comes from, online health information should supplement - not replace - consultation with your physician. Doctors sometimes have ambivalent feelings about patients who pre-research medical conditions online, in part because they have to spend so much time reeducating those who have been seduced by improbable claims and wishful thinking.

By using reliable health information sites, you can become the exception - a patient whose online research actually contributes to informed decisions that will protect and improve the health of your family.