James Delingpole

In praise of cyberchondria

Sometimes, Dr Google is your friend

24 May 2014

9:00 AM

24 May 2014

9:00 AM

There’s something perversely satisfying in discovering that your children have inherited your vices. That’s why I was so quietly pleased the other evening when Boy came to see me petrified that the huge fat spider with the sinister body-markings on the wall above his bed was in fact a deadly false widow with a bite — so the internet tells us — whose symptoms can range from ‘feelings of numbness, severe swelling and discomfort to various levels of burning or chest pains’.

Though I’m not personally scared of spiders, I could most certainly claim proud authorship of the catastrophist tendencies Boy was displaying here. Also — being a fellow cyberchondriac — I was more than happy to indulge his urge to go straight onto the web (ho! ho!) and find more details about the grisly arachnid now threatening his future.

First, we captured it in a jar. (I would have used my bare hands because I once read somewhere that no British spider has a bite capable of penetrating human skin and I’ve believed it ever since. But this time — for Boy’s sake — I made a point of sliding it onto a bit of paper, as you do with bees.) Then we Googled ‘false widow’ — to see whether the picture matched our specimen.

And, lo, it did. No question about it: the pattern on our spider was exactly the same as the one in the picture captioned ‘false widow’. While Boy began making preparations to move out of his bedroom, possibly for ever, I did the thing I occasionally do sometimes when I remember I’m supposed to be a professional journalist. I followed the link to be sure I hadn’t got the wrong end of the stick.

Just as well I checked. ‘Is this a false widow?’ asked the person who had submitted the photograph to one of those mostly useless, deeply unsatisfying websites where you ask people stuff and they give an answer which usually begins ‘I don’t know the answer but…’ and then gives you their tuppenny ha’penny’s worth anyway. ‘No it is not a false widow,’ came the unusually confident answer. ‘It is a harmless lace weaver.’

The internet, for all its faults, can be jolly useful this way, sometimes. Though we’re constantly counselled not to trust anything we read on it, especially where health-and-safety issues are concerned, there are times when cyber-diagnosis can be your saviour.

Take this weekend just gone, for example. Some friends kindly invited us to stay at a lakeside property in the Cotswolds. When we arrived on Friday evening it was still quite hot, so my friend Gary decided to go for a swim and I — being one of those men who can’t see another man doing man-things without joining in — felt compelled to follow suit.

It took me quite a while to swim to the other side and back, and when I finally waded through the green, snail-infested scum on to the shore I was shivering like mad. Itching a lot too, which was strange, but I put this down to the cold rather than insect bites. No way could so many gnats or midges have got to me in the short space between exiting the water and dashing to the hot shower, could they?

But yes, apparently they could have done, for by the next morning I had erupted in dozens of tiny red lumps which looked — and itched — exactly like flea bites, perhaps 100 of them, all over my torso and upper arms. This struck me as odd: the bits where I’d been most badly bitten — and it was the same with Gary — were those which had spent most time immersed in the water. Clearly those fleas — and it had to be fleas, the bites were identical — must have moved in for the kill very, very quickly and with impressive stealth.

So when I got home I did a bit of Google research on fleas. Nope, there appeared to be no evidence that they lurked by lakes waiting to bite swimmers in the evening. But there was something else I hadn’t considered because I didn’t know of its existence. A schistosomiasis-related condition called swimmer’s itch, where a snail-born, waterfowl-carried parasite sneaks through the water into your skin and then dies in a series of explosive, bite-like eruptions.

Now schistosomiasis — aka bilharzia — is something I thought I was an expert on, having contracted the condition myself once while swimming in the Nile. (The diagnostic procedure is a joy: something called a ‘rectal snip’.) But what I didn’t know — nor you, I suspect — is that there’s a much milder version you can catch in American and European lakes, including posho ones in the Cotswolds.

One of the clinchers I found online was a newspaper report about two girls who had been infected at Cotswold Water Park, just down the road from where I was. The condition was described as ‘rare’, which I rather doubt. More likely is that so very few people are aware of it that they naturally assume — as I had — that it was caused by something else. And because it’s not serious — the lumps clear up after a week, after which you’re fine — few victims can be bothered going to the doctor, who probably wouldn’t know what it was anyway.

Still, swimmer’s itch is not a condition I’d recommend and if you want to avoid it, here’s what you must do if you can’t resist a swim in that Cotswold lake. First, spend less time in the water (which reduces your risk of infection) and second, towel yourself down vigorously afterwards. But it could be much worse. Remind me, some time, to tell you about black fly bites.

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  • Ahobz

    I don’t know about swimmers itch, but blackfly bites require antibiotics. Sadly they find me particularly edible.