News stories about outbreaks and people getting sick with unusual illnesses are often easy to dismiss without much thought – they just don’t seem relevant to our daily lives. But sometimes it pays to pay attention.
I recently had a friend contact me because she was “feeling sick.”
She mentioned a dramatic change in bowel movements, with a few weeks of diarrhea. She didn’t have any of the “concerning” symptoms that I listed off to her: no fevers, no chills, no blood in the diarrhea. No weight loss, no vomiting, no pain in any particular area of her belly. All she could say was that she “didn’t feel right” and was very weak and tired.
She’d seen her doctor who had tested her stool and blood – all normal. She was told she probably had a “stomach bug” and would recover slowly. I reassured her and told her to get in touch if she wasn’t feeling better.
One week later, she called me back. She was completely miserable and still weak. Her diarrhea had improved for a few days but now it was as bad as in the beginning of her illness. She was getting ready to send her son back to school and she just couldn’t function like this.
Right before her second call, I’d been reading about a recent outbreak of a cyclospora infections in the U.S. Cyclospora cayetanensis is a parasite that you can get when you eat contaminated food or water, and doctors usually need a special blood test to check for it. Hearing her list of symptoms again and knowing about this outbreak, I encouraged her to ask her doctor to test her for cyclospora. A few days later, she was diagnosed, taking the right antibiotics, and, more importantly, feeling so much better that she was back to her exercise routine.
While I’d like to think that I’m just a great doctor, the truth is that this infection would not have been on my radar if I hadn’t been keeping up with the news. There are a lot of health headlines whizzing by and it’s hard to know when that information is going to help us and when it’s just going to confuse us. Here are my tips for getting the most out of the information that’s out there.
- Reliable sources: Pick a few reliable sources for health information that gather and report health stories based on the best available evidence. Pay attention to the references being used and make sure it goes back to a source like the FDA or the CDC. This can help limit the “information overload” and ensure that the information has been vetted properly.
- Advocate for yourself: If you see information that might help you improve your health, always review it with your healthcare team. Have all of your questions ready so you can get the answers you need.
- Share information with your doctor: Don’t assume that your doctor knows about everything that is going on in the news. Doctors are human too, and sometimes, they are not aware of these stories. I know I am always interested to learn from my patients about what is most concerning to them. Patient concerns are a great source of information for us! So if there’s a news story that has you concerned, share it with your doctor; even if you come to find out that the information isn’t really relevant to your particular situation, discussing it will give you peace of mind and will keep your doctor informed.
It’s a great idea to be aware of what’s going on around us. But with so much health information out there, it’s really important to look to reliable sources. And when you read something that seems to apply to you, discuss it thoroughly with your doctor so you can make the best decisions to stay healthy.