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Posted at 1:57 PM ET, 01/27/2011

I have a cold! Or do I? Can I Google it?

By Alexandra Petri

I have a cold.

I noticed this yesterday when I began to experience a sensation that felt as though a small army of ants in sandpaper shoes were marching down my throat in single-file.

I went home, rested, ate some vitamin C, drank some water, and went to bed early. I woke up this morning, and whenever I say anything, I sound sort of like Carol Channing, if Carol Channing kept stopping in the middle of sentences to blow her nose violently.

I think it's one of those common, garden-variety colds. I don't know whose garden this is, but I think he's a bioterrorist.

Every time I get a cold, I try to find a good placebo to take. It doesn't matter if it works. It just has to require a lot of effort and involvement. My ideal remedy for anything is one of those old-timey panaceas like "apply a muskrat to your chest" or "sleep with a goat's bladder under your pillow, with the goat still attached." Apparently, the pioneers did things like this, when they weren't failing to ford rivers, having their oxen die, and catching cholera. If it works, you're cured. If it doesn't, you get to wander around the office for a week with a muskrat tied to your chest and no questions asked.

So for the next few days, I'll be That Person With An Obstreperous Cold. Don't come near me!

After erupting into a violent coughing fit near you and unconvincingly trying to pass it off as an audition for La Boheme, I will probably tell you that "I'm on antibiotics." Nine of out of ten times, this is false. It's just one of those things you have to say to prevent things from getting awkward, like "That wasn't me!" or "I love you."

And there's another problem. Like most Americans, my response to any kind of health crisis -- or, for that matter, any crisis -- is to Google it. According to the Pew Center, more than 82 percent of the Americans who had access to the Internet in 2008 (about 61 percent of all adults) had searched for health information online. This seems great -- more information, more rapidly!

Except that it might not be. As Dr. Robert Goldberg points out in "Tabloid Medicine: How the Internet is Being Used to Hijack Medical Science for Fear and Profit" (this book wears its thesis on its dust jacket sleeve) only one-fourth of those searching for medical information online reported checking the source and date of the information they found. And the sensationalist tendencies of the Internet mean that dramatic but rare diseases often get higher billing in search results than their less intriguing (but more probable) cousins. In one study, researchers who put "muscle twitches" as a symptom into the general search engine LiveSearch found that 50 percent of the results suggested Lou Gehrig's disease. Serves them right for using LiveSearch! Based on my symptoms, a cursory Google search revealed that I am dying of scrofula, a disease that can only be cured by the touch of Louis XIV.

But this is not the only problem. Well-intentioned people post information on their blogs that becomes unduly influential thanks to factors like availability bias. And, as Goldberg notes, "the ultimate danger of Internet searching -- particularly for information about risks and benefits -- is that there is no arbiter of truth to let users know that what they are being told is accurate." That's true of everything online, but in the realm of medicine, fatally so. For instance, I recently read a gripping account that said that, true, one vitamin C capsule had no tangible effect, but if I ate the whole bottle in a sitting, not only would I be instantly cured, but I'd never get scurvy again! I'm going to try this when I get home.

But first, I'm going to CVS. After all, the best part of any cold is the part when you arrive in the pharmacy aisle looking for things to take. They are all brightly colored and going to help you. Suddenly, you want one of everything. Theraflu warming relief? Sign me up! Ricola? Why not? Zicam? That might be a bit much. Theraflu is what we in showbiz refer to as a quadruple threat: A pain reliever/fever reducer/cough suppressant/nasal decongestant! This will even solve problems I don't have yet!

At least, it would have if I hadn't read a large number of vivid online accounts explaining that taking Theraflu was tantamount to having a stranger toss you in a bathtub and remove both your kidneys. The more I read, the clearer it became that absolutely any medicine I tried would be absolutely lethal. I'm one of a new breed of what Dr. Goldberg calls cyberchondriacs -- I know I'm dying of a rare disease, but all the available treatments would be equally lethal! Usually, this works out well, because I am not actually sick. But now, it's a struggle.

Fortunately, a number of recent studies have said that placebos actually do work as actual treatments, even if you know they're placebos -- as long as they don't eat your kidneys.

Maybe I'll have to get that muskrat after all!

By Alexandra Petri  | January 27, 2011; 1:57 PM ET
Categories:  Bad Advice, Only on the Internet, Petri, That's awkward  | Tags:  Google, colds, slow news day, the power of myth  
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Posted by: bettyrubin28 | January 28, 2011 5:21 AM | Report abuse

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