Unconventional Wisdom

It’s okay to Google your symptoms

Despite what everyone says, it’s often very helpful.
Unconventional Wisdom

It’s okay to Google your symptoms

Despite what everyone says, it’s often very helpful.

Challenging those faux-profound bits of knowledge so often taken for granted

I may rely too much on Google. My boyfriend tells me that I talk to the search engine like a friend, asking questions that more closely resemble Carrie Bradshaw’s editorial queries than search terms (albeit less romantic)... [I couldn’t help but wonder] why isn’t he texting me back?

While the tech giant couldn’t help me learn why some dates don’t turn into a relationship, it did help me become a better partner to my current boyfriend, who suffers from depression. I read that a symptom is “skewed reality” — the feeling that everything is exponentially worse than it is. That’s not to say the symptom hadn’t previously occurred to me, but reading about the way it manifests made it more tangible. Post-Google, when my boyfriend spilled chicken juice on his hands at Whole Foods and complained about it for the next two hours, I was able to be more empathetic.

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. Contrary to my search-oriented way of life, however, some are less keen on meticulous research, specifically when it comes to their health. It’s a widely held belief that, when faced with a rash, an ache, a pain, one must steer clear of Google and make a beeline for a doctor. 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.

There was the time I saved a previous boyfriend from the anxiety of a possible STI (and myself for that matter) by correctly diagnosing him with a yeast infection. We were in Martha’s Vineyard with no access to a car, and sharing a very small cottage with my parents and brother, i.e. the perfect storm. A quick search for his symptoms yielded the unanimous answer, and needless to say, his anxiety was quelled for the remainder of our stay.

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.

Even when I do have access to a car or at least an Uber, I go to the doctor sparingly. Some people seem to consult a physician at the first sign of peculiarity. My roommate when she has any inkling of a sore throat. My boss when she’s just feeling “off.” I get my routine checkups — gynecologist, dentist — but otherwise, my experience in the hospital over the last five years has been limited to an appendectomy and a wrist x-ray. I’m one of the lucky ones. Basic care for uninsured Americans, which currently includes about 15 percent of adults, is out of reach.

Not only can an internet search obviate the need for unnecessary or expensive doctor’s visits, it can also offer more power over one’s own body. Ignoring all other cruelties of our profit-driven healthcare system, there is the simple fact that many Americans receive sub-par care, especially in the realm of women’s health. I have experienced, first hand, the frustration of being turned away from a doctor after recounting vaginal pain. She explained that my painful sex was a result of infrequency. Crazier yet, I believed her.

Years later and with considerably better research skills, I’m now able to educate myself about my health concerns and bring this knowledge to my doctors, should I decide to go.

For example, I have IBS. What that means is really nothing more than I have a sensitive stomach and doctors are unable to pinpoint the cause. (I never thought I’d be writing publicly about my unfortunate condition, but here we are. I am committed to the greater good.) My first and only visit to a doctor to discuss options ended with him and the nurse explaining dietary methods to treat symptoms. I, however, had internet-ed the shit out of stomach issues and knew there was an antibiotic that had cured some message board users of all their digestive woes. Furthermore, I wanted to sample another medication that was supposed to work as a sort of digestive muscle relaxant. “You’ve really done your research,” he said as he scribbled on his prescription pad. Hadn’t everyone, I thought.

Of course, the waters of compulsive Googling are dangerously muddied and internet literacy is a necessity. I tend to trust my instincts, but that’s not universally sound advice. So here’s some real advice from a real doctor who happens to be my dad: “There are no perfect websites and we should be careful with what we trust,” he says. After all, every website has a reason for existing and that reason is often to make money. I poked around some disease information websites, per my dad’s instruction (diabetes for example), and found that they’re often partially (possibly largely) funded by pharmaceutical companies. However there are trusted sources — Mayo Clinic came up on nearly every list — and my approach to finding reliable information is to triple check facts and anecdotes across websites. If you see something three times on different sites, you may be onto something.

There are certainly other caveats to my full-throated endorsement of Googling. My brother, for example, is a hypochondriac. I wouldn’t recommend he search any condition for the fear that he’d zero in on the worst explanation for a possibly benign symptom. But often there are few alternatives, with a healthcare system fraught with limitations, fees, and wait times. I’m always baffled when someone announces that they’ve had a doctor’s visit for the flu. The symptoms are so common and we know what to look for. Who has the time, money, or wherewithal to see an MD just to have them recommend bed rest?

And I will admit that even non-hypochondriacs can be prone to panic. I have memories of traveling to Paris with a friend, who, upon discovering an itch at the Eiffel Tower, bolted back to our hostel to Google pictures of herpes. I had a benign bone growth when I was in middle school, which I pointed out to my mom one day. She immediately got online and found that my symptoms were reminiscent of a bone cancer often found in children. She bawled the whole way to the hospital.

But more often than not I’m in awe of the information available at our fingertips and want to take advantage of it. After all, if my digital sleuthing skills can help me track down details on a new fling’s ex from a single image, surely it can help me feel more in control of my own health. So go ahead, Google that shit.

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Rachel Ellison is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York.