WebMD Can Kill You

As anyone with an Internet connection who’s ever wondered about that weird bump on their back, that unfamiliar sensation in their chest or that rumbling in their tummy knows, the one thing you don’t want to do before going to see your doctor is look up your symptoms on WebMD. 

WebMD and similar medical information sites are the opposite of the doctor’s creed: “first do no harm.”  When you type symptoms into these sites, they invariably find the most lethal, life-shortening diseases imaginable.

Thanks to WebMD and its progeny, a few years ago, I thought the benign mass my doctor found during a routine examination would turn out to be an extremely rare and incurable form of bone cancer.  Earlier this year, WebMD had me convinced I was suffering from esophageal cancer.  In the back of my mind, I had already started thinking about contingency plans for the kids’ parenting, whether or not my life insurance was paid up, etc. 

It turned out I had a small stomach ulcer that was completely cured with a few weeks of medication and sensible eating.  That episode also cured me of self-diagnosis via WebMD.

Apparently, I should have passed the lesson down to my daughter.

On the first day of school last week, my 13 year-old daughter rushed me at the door as soon as I got home.  “Mommy, I got a fever at school!”

I felt her forehead.  She felt mildly warm, but nothing alarming. “Umm-hmm. Did you take anything?”


“Take some Advil.” 

She scowled at me, clearly annoyed that I wasn’t fawning over her.

There was no school for the rest of the week because of Rosh Hashanah.  I knew whatever was causing this mild temperature spike would be over in time for school on Monday.  She, of course, was not so convinced.

The next day, she again announced that she had a fever.  Not enough of a fever to cause her to cancel plans with her best friend, nor enough to choose to stay home instead of seeing Wicked with me.  It was just enough of a fever for her to demand peppermint tea from Starbucks before the show and to try to get me to run down and buy her concessions during the show’s intermission. 

I agreed to the peppermint tea, but refused the snacks.  WebMD didn’t say Twizzlers can help reduce a fever or soothe a sore throat. 

“You don’t care that I’m sick!” was the not-unexpected response.

The next day, she announced, “Mom, I have strep throat.”

“Really? And this is based on….”

“I looked up my symptoms, and I have all the symptoms of strep.”

I felt her forehead.  Not even slightly warm this time.  “You don’t have strep.”

“Why not?”

“For one, you don’t have a fever anymore.  This isn’t strep.”

“Mom, I’m really sick!  You have to take me the doctor!”

I wanted to laugh, but didn’t.  WebMD strikes again, I thought.

Being the unsung dramatic actress that she is, my daughter did not let the strep thing go until I finally agreed to take her to her pediatrician.

The nurse checked her temperature (normal), ears (uncongested) and throat (slightly reddish but otherwise unremarkable), and then asked, “So what’s been going on with you?” 

My daughter began reciting the list of symptoms of strep throat from WebMD.

 “Okay, honey, but is that what’s going on with you?”


The nurse took a throat culture.  We waited the required five minutes for the results.

“Good news!  It’s not strep.  There’s a nasty throat virus going around, but it typically clears up in about 3-5 days, which is about where you are now.  So you should be able to go to school on Monday.”

I shook my head.  It cost me $55 for the doctor’s office to confirm the “nothing’s wrong with you” diagnosis that I had made in my living room.  My daughter felt vindicated by the mention of “throat virus.”  I thought of my mother, who would have blown sulfur powder down her throat and made her drink two tablespoons of cod liver oil.

I gave my daughter the “don’t self-diagnose using WebMD” speech afterwards, but I don’t hold out much hope.  After all, she’s a kid with an Internet connection and access to a site that helps reinforce her belief that she’s much smarter than Mom.  I just hope she doesn’t self-diagnose herself into hospice care before she makes it out of 8th grade.

7 thoughts on “WebMD Can Kill You

  1. I think that too much medication and being overly sensitive to every illness that comes along is a bad thing. It has produced antibiotic resistant bugs such as the super strep that is going around.

    WebMD and other medical resources can produce hypochondriac behavior over time. There is nothing worse than having a little information and making a quantum leap from a cold to the black plague.


  2. I was a cod liver child 🙂

    I swear I must look up everything else on the Internet except symptoms. I don’t even take Tylenol on my own though as I am generally against the idea of self-medicating.

    Great post!


  3. I must say, however, that Web MD helped me save my child’s life when he was just 13 months old. Over a series of a few days, he started bruising very easily, and then I noticed these little red marks all over him. My husband thought it was nothing, that I was doing some internet doctoring and being ridiculous. But I saw something called “petechiae,” where your body lacks platelets in the blood.

    I took my son to the doctor’s office at 5pm – without my husband, because he didn’t want to be involved in my hypochondria – right before they were about to close, without an appointment, and the nurse told us we had to come back later because we didn’t have an appointment. That just seemed wrong to me, but when I came back a half hour later, the doctor said she should have never sent us home because my son needed to immediately go to the emergency room. Once we got to the emergency room, they took us straight back – no waiting in the waiting room at all. They tested his blood, and admitted him. We were there for two days while they treated him for ITP, a condition where your spleen does something to inhibit the body from creating platelets, which are essential to stop internal bleeding.

    So since then, after I believe I single-handedly saved my child’s life via Web MD, I continue to checks symptoms, believing that even if it can happen once that I save myself or my children, it’s worth having some false alarms.


  4. I think WebMD can help and hurt. It helps by way of giving you a general idea of different issues that CAN produce the symptoms you feel, to help narrow things down. It can hurt because it takes hypochondria to an entirely new level.

    I’ve used it a few times because I hate going to the doctor. That’s a problem.

    I’m glad you guys got it figured out though and baby girl will be ok.


  5. I have to say that perhaps one doesn’t have to wait for WebMD use. My children can’t use the internet yet, but my daughter keep demanding that I take her brother to the eye doctor because he keeps bumping into things; according to her, he needs glasses. And she thinks she needs to go to the “skin doctor” because she’s itchy (she has eczema–we had it diagnosed when she was an infant). Don’t know what’s going to happen when they can look up their own symptoms!


  6. i think with most things, we must find the balance (as Benee said) in our use. I am queen of medical/health searches but mainly AFTER a doctor’s visit, I use it mainly to get more information. I’m actually more likely to type “i have a flap of skin hanging under my tongue” in google and see what I find. Rarely do my searches direct me to WedMD. lol


  7. I think WebMD is helpful but also agree that it can be overdone. In April, I was experiencing heartburn and mild pain in the chest. After checking on WebMD, a quick trip to the ER was indicated. Yes, I was early stages of heart attack and received praise from the ER MD for taking such quick action. WebMD saved my life!


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