7 Little White Lies That Can Harm Your Health

Lying to your doctor about unhealthy habits or embarrassing symptoms is common, but can have serious consequences. Here’s why you should tell the truth.

Medically reviewed in March 2022

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By Emily Delzell 

Cynical TV character Dr. Gregory House’s mantra was, “Everybody lies.” And it’s true, we all do, and sometimes to our doctors. Telling your physician the whole truth about your bad habits, sexual problems, frightening symptoms or other popular evasions may feel awkward, but it’s the only way to ensure that you get the care you need. Keith Roach, MD, Sharecare Chief Medical Officer and an associate professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, explains seven common lies people tell in the doctor’s office -- and how these fibs can endanger their health.

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Lie #1: I’m a moderate drinker.
Minimizing the amount you drink means your doctor may have no reason to look for serious diseases caused by excessive alcohol intake, such as fatty liver disease, which is treatable when caught early. But without proper care and lifestyle changes, overdoing the sauce can progress to irreversible, fatal liver damage called cirrhosis. “People routinely lie about how much they drink,” Dr. Roach says. “The liver is a common area for problems, and we don’t routinely test its function unless we have reason to suspect a problem.” Drinking too much also increases risk for heart disease, stroke, inflammation of the pancreas and certain cancers. 
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Lie #2: My mood is fine.
Doctors routinely ask patients about their mood during check-ups, but some people find it hard to admit to symptoms that might suggest a mental health problem. Instead they fall back on a stoic, “Everything’s fine,” even when they feel consistently down, anxious or overly stressed. “Not discussing mood issues with your doctor is a mistake,” says Roach. “It’s something for which we now have many treatment options and I think there’s a lot of unnecessary suffering because people are too proud or embarrassed to speak up.” Men, who commit suicide at four times the rate of women, can be especially reluctant to talk about symptoms of depression.
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Lie #3: I don’t have any symptoms that concern me.
Some patients minimize symptoms for fear of what they might mean or because they find it difficult to discuss certain bodily functions, but it’s potentially dangerous to downplay symptoms. “A women who hasn’t had a period in years who’s suddenly having vaginal bleeding, for example, might hesitate to bring that up, but it could be a sign of something serious, such as uterine cancer,” Roach says. “Another major concern would be denying chest pain or other signs of cardiac problems. Most people with heart disease don’t actually experience chest pain—they get pressure, discomfort, squeezing, or tightness and they need to speak up.” 
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Lie #4: I don’t use illegal drugs.
Using illegal drugs can cause problems as varied the substances themselves. Men who smoke marijuana on a regular basis may experience low libido and erectile dysfunction; Ecstasy can lead to depression and psychosis; cocaine use can trigger a debilitating or fatal heart attack. You may feel chagrined to admit to using these drugs, but Roach says they’ve heard it all. “Your doctor isn’t there to judge you. But the more information you share the better he or she can help you and give you information about how much harm you’re potentially doing.” While marijuana use is legal in some states, it’s still something you’d want to bring up since the possible health repercussions are the same.
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Lie #5: My sex life is fine.
Sexual dysfunction is common among older men, but bedroom problems can affect both men and women at all life stages. Both sexes, Roach says, can find it difficult to talk to their doctors about problems in their sex life, but these issues can be a sign of a physiological problem. In men, for example, erectile dysfunction might be the first sign of blocked blood vessels or neurological disease. In women, physical causes of sexual problems include diabetes, heart disease, nerve disorders or hormonal abnormities. Whether the root cause is psychological or physiological, it’s important to share your difficulties with your doctor. 
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Lie #6: I don’t smoke.
Maybe you have only the occasional cigarette and don’t consider yourself a smoker, so you don’t mention it to your doc. But smoking just five days a month can cause shortness of breath and coughing, and smoking one to four cigarettes a day increases your risk of dying from all causes, including heart disease and cancer. Roach notes that, among bad lifestyle habits, smoking has one of the highest potentials for harm. “Cigarette smoking is an incredibly powerful risk factor, not only for cancer, but for heart disease, lung disease and many other problems.” Your doctor is also likely to know you’re lying. “Cigarette smokers smell like smoke, so it’s usually not hard to figure out,” he says.
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Lie #7: I’d never use anyone else’s prescription medications.
While it may be tempting to “borrow” a prescription pain medicine or anti-anxiety drug from your spouse or even a friend—don’t. And if you have, tell your doctor. Opiate painkillers are highly addictive, and a drug that controls pain in someone with a serious illness or injury can kill a person who hasn’t built up tolerance to it. Interactions between different drugs can also cause dangerous side effects. Doctors can’t account for those complications if they don’t know what you’re taking. 

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