Feeling sick? Go ahead and Google it
I once heard an episode of the WNYC podcast “Radiolab” which featured a young woman named Amy Pearl. Amy was an avid carnivore; she loved a good porterhouse steak or rack of lamb. She loved hot dogs and burgers, fresh off the grill.
But one day, Amy developed what could only be described as a sudden allergy to meat. Every time she ate meat, she would become dizzy and lightheaded. She would suffer shortness of breath and stomach cramps and become profoundly ill — like, anaphylactic-shock, ambulance-trip-to-the-emergency-room ill.
Come to find out, Amy had been bitten by a certain species of tick. The tick deposited in her a sugar called galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose — known colloquially by scientists who study these sorts of things as “alpha gal.”
Alpha gal is found in the blood of all non-primate mammals, it turns out. And Amy’s immune system, triggered by the tick bite, essentially “labeled” alpha gal as an “enemy agent,” something very bad that must be destroyed. And so, every time Amy ate meat, well …
Her body rebelled.
After the second or third time this happened, she Googled “sudden meat allergy,” because she found a story about a Florida man who had developed very much the same thing. (Whether it was because he was bitten by the lone star tick is never revealed.)
“When I woke up in the morning, the first thing I did was Google ‘sudden meat allergy’ because I was like, this seems like an allergy,” Amy said. “And the only thing that was the same was meat. And I'm going through and, like, the second thing that came up was this article that was like, ‘Florida Man Has Sudden Meat Allergy.’ I was like, oh my God, I think it's possible. I could have this. And so I made an appointment with my doctor. I brought in the article. I'm like, I'm going to be this person, but I can do it. I had the article in my pocket…”
Amy lost her nerve. Well, sort of. She saw her doctor, but the article stayed in her pocket the whole time. As it turns out, she couldn’t be “this person.”
“You know, the person that goes to their doctor with something ‘I found on the Internet,’” Amy explained. “So I brought the article. It was in my pocket and like I got through the whole like checkup and I was too chicken. I went, when I was paying the receptionist, I pulled it out and gave it to the receptionist and I was like, could you give this to the doctor? So that was like the best I could do.”
So, here’s the question. Is it okay to be “that person” — the person who Googles your symptoms and takes a stab at self-diagnosis? I have to admit, I’m guilty of it. Thanks to WebMD, I’ve had Valley Fever, dermatitis and a host of other unspeakable maladies.
Writing at “The Outline,” Rachel Ellison challenges the conventional wisdom. She asserts that it’s okay to be “that person.”
“The internet has helped me with my own symptoms as well over the years: to differentiate between a cold and a sinus infection, diagnose bed bug bites, the list goes on,” she writes. “I am here to make the case that search engines are not the enemy of rational and practical self-care, but rather an invaluable tool if you know how to use them.”
She lays out several instances in which the search engine helped her accurately diagnose her symptoms, but stresses the importance of considering the source.
“Of course, the waters of compulsive Googling are dangerously muddied and internet literacy is a necessity,” she writes. “I tend to trust my instincts, but that’s not universally sound advice.”
She does not recommend the practice for hypochondriacs, however.
Still, with a world of information available at our fingertips, go ahead and Google it. After all, you are the expert on the body you live in. Google it. But keep in mind that the worst-case scenario is probably also the least likely. It probably is not quite as bad as it seems.
— Originally Published in the Las Cruces Sun-News, 10/18/18