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.”
“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.