Vis­it­ing a dis­tant cor­ner of the world can be amaz­ing. Un­less you’re a hypochon­driac like Xan­the Hunt, in which case you’ll start think­ing (and googling) your­self sick.


Xan­the Hunt writes about the tri­als and tribu­la­tions of be­ing a travel hypochon­driac.

When I was 16, I went to Kenya, Tan­za­nia and Zanz­ibar. I was on a school trip and I rev­elled in the crisp morn­ings and big game of the Serengeti, and later in the heat and sweat of the coast. How­ever, on the plane back home, the heat and sweat of the coast grew stronger. I de­vel­oped a fever. I coughed up a bit of blood and passed out. I woke up 10 days later, in ICU, with a ma­chine do­ing my breath­ing for me. To add in­sult to in­jury, I had missed Easter. I had pneu­mo­nia. It had been bad. It got bet­ter. I went back to school and got a lot of be­lated choco­late bun­nies. Years later, when I was 23, I went to live in the Hi­malayas. I got overex­cited by the idea of be­ing a gain­fully em­ployed adult, googled “go to In­dia”, and ended up not in the land of saris and spices I had

imag­ined, but in a beau­ti­ful but icy cor­ner on the bor­der with Nepal. Af­ter three months I started to swell. Every night I went to bed with an­kles and calves bloated with spongy fluid, my skin aching with the stretch of it all. I woke up every day back to nor­mal. Then, come 10 am, I would start to puff up all over again. This con­tin­ued, un­abated, for three months. No doc­tor could tell me what was hap­pen­ing. Fast for­ward a few flights and a pair of com­pres­sion socks and I was back home in South Africa, swollen and tired. I saw a spe­cial­ist who told me I had a sim­ple pro­tein de­fi­ciency. Eat eggs and thrive, he said.

As a re­sult of these ex­pe­ri­ences, and my nat­u­rally anx­ious dis­po­si­tion, I tend to over­re­act when I sus­pect my­self ill abroad. I am a travel hypochon­driac. My fear of over­seas ill­ness is prob­lem­atic for an­other rea­son: I travel for a liv­ing as part of my work in pub­lic health. An­other com­pli­ca­tion is how dis­mis­sive my fam­ily has be­come when my ail­ments (in­evitably) arise. True, there have been some ridicu­lous overreactions in the past, but to deny that a per­son is ac­tu­ally ill – as any fel­low Sickly Sam will tell you – is bor­der­line abu­sive when you’re ter­ri­fied, far away and cer­tain of your im­mi­nent demise. I’ve had a cough in Kenya (early on­set em­phy­sema, surely), I’ve been nau­seous in Nepal (pre­cur­sor to a mi­graine, def­i­nitely), I’ve had sus­pected sal­mo­nella in Joburg, a mys­te­ri­ous fever in Mozam­bique and I’ve stressed about sore mus­cles in Cape Town. I’ve had more tetanus shots than a me­tal­worker and more malaria tests than any hu­man should have to en­dure. I re­cently saw a poster warn­ing about symp­toms of the plague at a lo­cal air­port and thought to my­self: “Hey, at least I know the theme of the next two weeks’ wor­ry­ing!” I’ve spent in­nu­mer­able hours wait­ing in clinic queues, sheep­ish and red­cheeked, among the le­git­i­mately ill in Silig­uri and Dar­jeel­ing in In­dia, and in Kisumu and Nairobi in Kenya. And be­cause my fears are not al­ways for­eign, in OR Tambo (yes, air­ports have doc­tors), Cape Town, Hei­del­berg and Bloem. I have an in­tu­itive knowl­edge of a hos­pi­tal lay­out the way a mom of four knows her lo­cal gro­cery store. I can tell you that I’m feel­ing un­well in five lan­guages and I can per­form in pan­tomime the specifics of var­i­ous con­di­tions, in­clud­ing but not lim­ited to, di­ar­rhoea, back­ache, tummy pain, joint stiff­ness, fever and – be­cause this usu­ally un­der­lies each – anx­i­ety. In­ci­den­tally, the pan­tomime ac­tion for con­sti­pa­tion is re­mark­ably sim­i­lar to the one for di­ar­rhoea. If you’re ever of­fered liquorice root, know that it’s a (very) ef­fec­tive cure for the for­mer, which is all well and good un­less you’re in fact af­flicted by the lat­ter, and not within sprint­ing dis­tance of a loo.

As a re­sult of my fears, I turn into a preven­ta­tive medicine fundi, ger­mo­phobe, and fre­quenter of an In­ter­net re­source called We­bMD. This phase lasts from the mo­ment I ar­rive in a for­eign coun­try un­til the win­dow pe­riod for all en­demic ill­nesses has fi­nally, mer­ci­fully, passed. I take malaria pro­phy­laxes (and fear con­stantly that I’ll be part of the 1 % of peo­ple who die from the pill, as stip­u­lated in the med­i­ca­tion leaflet). I hand san­i­tize like a sur­geon. I read preven­tion posters. I drink my drinks with no ice in them and I google like a woman pos­sessed when the slight­est symp­tom ap­pears. I know – as if by magic – which side of the leaflet con­tains the side ef­fects. Per­versely, I read them in re­verse or­der, from “ex­tremely rare” to “com­mon”. Af­ter all, I’m way more in­ter­ested in the like­li­hood of RU (code for “re­lent­less uri­na­tion”) than I am in a lousy headache or fa­tigue. When I’m in a for­eign coun­try, my on­line search his­tory reads like an un­likely se­ries of hor­rific mys­tery sto­ries. Which in­sect bit me? What do dif­fer­ent in­sect bites look like? How many an­ti­his­tamines be­fore you die? How long can germs live? Can hand san­i­tizer be poi­sonous? I’m in Pa­furi, in the far north-east of South Africa, near the borders with Zim­babwe and Mozam­bique. I have a red­dish lump in my eye. Yes, travel hypochon­dria strikes again! I asked Google. It’s ei­ther pink-eye, a sun spot (surfer’s eye, or ptery­gium – a type of non-can­cer­ous tis­sue growth on the eye’s mu­cous mem­brane com­mon among those who spend a lot of time squint­ing in bright light), a cataract (I’m 26. Please!) or some­thing worse. Or it could be noth­ing.

De­cid­ing what’s wrong with you us­ing the In­ter­net is a two-stage process. First you type in your symp­toms. Then, if you’re brave, wor­ried or stupid enough, you choose which ill­ness you think you have from the many, of­ten apoc­a­lyp­ti­cally dire op­tions that ap­pear. You read tes­ti­mo­ni­als from un­sus­pect­ing vic­tims – “I thought it was just a hot flush!” – and from the vin­di­cated – “My fam­ily said it was noth­ing to worry about…” If you’re lucky, you’ll see ar­ti­cles that be­gin with “Usu­ally, con­di­tion X is harm­less…” You’ll feel briefly re­as­sured, but you’ll still scroll to the bot­tom of the page where the “In a small num­ber of cases, how­ever…” sec­tion be­gins. This lat­ter part of the process is up­set­ting, but the be­gin­ning bit – ask­ing the anony­mous In­ter­net to an­a­lyse your most in­ti­mate bodily prob­lem – is oddly re­as­sur­ing. Every time I search my symp­toms, Google’s au­to­com­plete tries to fin­ish my sen­tence. I type “lump in eye” and im­me­di­ately it sug­gests “right side”, “yel­low” and “itchy”. Type “pain in my…” and Google sug­gests “heart”, “chest”, “stom­ach”. Type an open-ended “why is my…” and Google spits out “stom­ach sore” and “mouth dry”. Type, “sore…” and it sug­gests, “throat”, “gums”, “neck”. Ask for “symp­toms of…” and you’ll get “malaria”, “TB” and “kid­ney prob­lems”. As global as my ill­nesses have been, so is the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity of like-minded hypochon­dri­acs. That’s the beauty of au­to­com­plete: It’s the re­sult of thou­sands, if not mil­lions, of other wor­ry­warts ag­o­nis­ing over their symp­toms and turn­ing to their phones or lap­tops. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one. If a mil­lion peo­ple have googled an eye lump, surely not all of them had a cataract. I’ll just keep telling my­self that.

De­cid­ing what’s wrong with you us­ing the In­ter­net is a two-stage process. First you type in your symp­toms. Then, if you’re brave, wor­ried or stupid enough, you choose which ill­ness you think you have from the many, of­ten apoc­a­lyp­ti­cally dire op­tions that ap­pear.

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