Tweets from across the USA have been used by researchers to gain an understanding of how Americans see their health.

The BBC reports that two computer scientists from  John Hopkins University, Baltimore developed a special search filter to identify 1.5 million health-related tweets published between May 2009 and October 2010. The duo then analysed these tweets to find that Twitter is a useful source of information about public attitudes to health.

Among the study’s findings were people taking antibiotics as a cure for the flu – something that doesn’t work and may actually stop our bodies from reacting to the drugs when we really need them to. Using geographic information from tweets and user profiles, researchers mapped out health trends across the United States. This revealed, for example, that allergy season started earlier in warmer states than in the  Midwest and Northeast.

The researchers did find that their study was limited by a lack of consistency in the information. Someone may tweet once about having a cold but never mention it again. This demonstrates the limitations of using any kind of online social data for this kind of study – people will only share what they want to, when they want to.

Still, it shows the potential of Twitter as a large-scale research tool. With the US Library of Congress storing an official archive of public tweets for academic study, approaching this data in the right way could reveal all sorts of fascinating insights into how we live and what we think. Google already operates a site called Flu Trends, which uses search data to map out how flu is affecting different parts of the world.