Internet diagnosis: The common cold or breakbone fever?


Thanks in part to spending a full hour walking the rows of Longterm Lot No. 2 at the Charlotte International Airport searching for my car at 1 am, I recently found myself under the weather. As in, sick enough to miss work, which happens about once every five years.

After several days of feeling generally awful, and having little else to do, I decided to enter my symptoms into a certain Internet site, just to make sure I didn’t have something other than the common cold. Schistosomiasis is said to be on the uptick in these regions, or so rumor has it.

Fortunately, I’m not the easily excited type as the exercise proved, yet again, the utter absurdity of how knowledge is used on the World Wide Web.

I went to a very well-known site – which I will simply call WebQuack – and entered my symptoms, none of which were unusual: Headache, hoarse voice, nasal congestion, nighttime wheezing, post-nasal drip, runny nose and sore throat.

Be forewarned: this is not an exercise for those who might lean toward hypochondria.

After I entered the relatively straightforward symptoms, I was given 97 possible diagnoses. Only a very few seemed probable, such as sinusitis, nasal congestion, hay fever and the common cold.

Others seemed to have little relation to the listed symptoms: astigmatism, nearsightedness, farsightedness, post-concussive syndrome, toxic shock syndrome, sunburn, chemical burns, thermal burn of mouth or tongue, goiter, insulin reaction, hernia and narcotics abuse.

Some were almost comical: caffeine withdrawal, excessive caffeine use, foreign object in nose, malocclusion (bite out of alignment), botox injection and constipation.

Others were dreadful: diabetes, stroke, meningitis, brain aneurysm, brain infection, brain tumor, lung cancer, esophageal cancer, throat cancer, intracranial hematoma, multiple sclerosis, scarlet fever, typhoid fever and whooping cough.

Then there was the handful of potential afflictions that seem utterly improbable: plague, radiation sickness, cyanide poisoning and ricin poisoning.

Plague? I generally keep my distance from flea-infested rodents, particularly in large Third World cities where the Black Death is still a problem.

Radiation sickness? I haven’t been to the Chernobyl or Fukushima nuclear power plants, and stay clear of spent nuclear fuel whenever possible.

Cyanide? I think I’d have a few more symptoms that those I listed, such as seizures, profuse vomiting and cardiac arrest.

Ricin?!? That’s what Soviet-bloc agents used to do away with enemies of the state. Unless I, in my misspent youth, angered a Stasi agent with a long memory but incredibly poor tracking skills who’s just getting around to evening the score, this seems quite unlikely. That, and the fact I’d be dead before I could have typed my symptoms in WebQuack.

So, what’s the point of this aspect of WebQuack? One supposes it’s to get people to go see doctors, ask for products advertised on WebQuack’s website and drive revenues to said advertisers. As for being helpful, it seems anything but.


12 thoughts on “Internet diagnosis: The common cold or breakbone fever?

  1. My doctor – a German chap practising in England – gave me a cyanide tonic when I was about thirteen: my husband think that accounts for a lot…
    He also cured my mother’s arthritis by the prescription of a glass of white burgundy every day. Father thought it made her forget about the arthritis…

    These sites must be a hypochondriac’s delight…..but the point of them has always escaped me until reading your analysis.

    The said doctor had a way with hypochondriacs. He would come over to his surgery from his house, survey the waiting room and announce
    All the malingerers can go home – now! I am here to serve the sick.
    Occasionally one would slip through the net…you could tell by the noise from the surgery and the way the ‘patient’ would be propelled through the door like a cork from a champagne bottle.

    Super doctor, but I reckon his methods would not go down too well thee days.

    • What was the cyanide tonic for? And did it help?

      I’ve never understood hypochondria. I tend toward the opposite extreme – ignore dire health symptoms until threatened with disastrous consequences. The upside is, most everything I get is minor and passes relatively quickly. And I don’t head off for a shot of antibiotics every six months, which will eventually make such antibiotics useless when I really need them.

      Best way to deal with hypochondriacs, if I were a doc, would be bring out the biggest needle you could find and announce said patient would be needing one of these in a very sensitive area. Then we’d see if the patient’s symptoms were real or not.

      • I was supposed to be what was then called outgrowing my strength.
        Either it worked or I stopped outgrowing…or perhaps it worked by stopping the outgrowing…

        Quite agree about ailments….most things go in a couple of weeks…or you drop off the perch.

        Leo has been seriously ill for years and when his mother was alive her visits used to drive me mad…a dedicated hypochondriac. Arrived with a car boot full of quack remedies, pills and potions of all sorts and talked non stop about her imagined ailments. By the time she left you felt as if she had passed them all on to you…what a way to visit a sick man!

        I would have liked to have used your needle on her…

      • I’m afraid my bedside manner isn’t very tolerant with those who seem to believe they have contracted every disease known to man and beast.

        And it had to have been particularly bad for your poor husband, who actually suffers from troubled health. I don’t know anybody who gets better by repeatedly dwelling on their symptoms – understanding of course that the chronically ill often have no choice.

  2. Your WebQuack is a lot like medical texts or medication inserts. That’s what makes diagnosis such an art form, and why it’s virtually impossible to get a diagnosis online. Health care insurance increases a person’s likelihood of running to the doctor with minor complaints, and the “health care industry” thrives on the hypochondriacs’ fears.

    If people had to pay their own way, we’d see a lot less hypochondria.

    • That’s one of my concerns about single-payer health care: If there’s no tangible out-of-pocket expense each time you go to the doctor, some people are going to go every time they have the slightest sniffle. If will not only overwhelm the system, but create longer lines for those who need quick care.

      • That’s only the beginning. It also keeps individuals from assuming more responsibility for their health. They become passive recipients of health care, with decisions made between doctors and insurers. It keeps patients in a child-like state of dependency and ignorance. It’s not healthy at all.

      • Can I butt in? I grew up with the British National Health service and saw the benefits it produced – not just in individual health but in producing a healthy society.
        We moved to France, where there is a mix of public and private finance…and saw the interminable bureaucracy involved.
        We are now in Costa Rica with another publicly funded health service. It is not perfect, but one of its chief projects is prevention and health education – to avoid as many problems as can be avoided by looking after yourself.
        All three are funded by employer/employee contributions as well as by general taxation.
        In all three cases there are people who abuse the system – partly, I believe, down to the intense preoccupation with self which characterises modern society – but this could be cured with a rather less PC approach to timewasting patients.
        I would never contemplate relying on private medicine with all the risks of the neglect of health by poorer people and the accompanying likelihood of insurance issues clouding health ones.

      • I think that as long as there some buy-in from employers/employees (when that’s possible, meaning the indigent aren’t expected to contribute because they can’t), the system works much better than one where the government picks up the entire tab (with funding, of course, actually coming out of taxes).

        In the US, part of the problem is that technology, which is great, comes at great cost. People want the benefit of superior technology, but they balk at the cost. But you don’t get one without the other. Someone, whether it’s you, your employer or the government (which is you and your employer), is going to have to pick up the tab.

  3. My wife was diagnosed with cancer in 2012 (she has recovered) and her specialist specifically told us to stay off the iNet. Your post explains why.

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