year in review 2018

The Year in Hypochondria

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

This year, lots of things made us worry — however vaguely — that we were dying. Fortunately, very few of these health concerns were as troubling as they seemed when we first frantically Googled them. Here were the most popular, slightly hypochondriacal worries we had in 2018.

Is staring at my phone before bed making me go blind?

I’m no dummy. I know, I know that staying up at night reading garbage tweets on my phone in the dark is bad for me, on a number of levels. I have never finished one of these scrolling sessions happier, more optimistic about the state of the world, or readier for sleep. So I know I should stop. But let’s say I didn’t, or couldn’t — how badly am I damaging my eyeballs in the meantime? It’s a given that my brain is toast, but can I at least trust that I’ll still be able to see my phone ten years from now? Plus, what’s this I read about transient smartphone blindness??

Alarmist news stories about the dangers of “blue light” (like that given off by phones) are easy to come by, but Dr. Ann Ostrovsky, an ophthalmologist at NYU Langone Health, says most of the studies done on the subject have been done on animals, and it’s hard to know if any of those results apply to humans. However, when it’s dark, our pupils are more open, and let in more light, so it’s *possible* that all that nighttime scrolling isn’t great for the eyes. Read more here.

I’ve been putting off a root canal for years, is that bad?

Okay, well … I was supposed to get a root canal like two years ago, but it would have cost thousands of dollars, so I did not. (Also I’m afraid.) Since then, my broken tooth has been getting progressively worse. It doesn’t hurt, but could it be causing me other damage? Like … to my ear canal, or something? Or jaw? How fucked am I at this moment, do you think?

It’s not often the case that I have to be the bearer of bad news, but I’m sorry to say — having gotten the input of Dr. Matthew Malek, the program director for the department of endodontics (the field of dentistry focused on the study and treatment of dental pulp) at NYU — you should really get that root canal. The longer your wait, the higher your risk of infection will get. Read more here.

Is it bad if I have to pee roughly a million times a day?

Something I’ve never really been able to get out of my head is this John Mulaney Xanax story, in which he describes going to the doctor claiming “frequent urination” as a cover to get a Xanax prescription. Mulaney ends up telling the doctor that he pees 11 times a day (he doesn’t), and basically the whole joke is that 11 times is way too high, and it alarms the doctor, and he ends up having to get a prostate exam. When I first heard the joke, I was like … ??? Is that supposed to be a lot? I’m pretty sure I pee 11 times a day at minimum. I drink a lot of water, but still — should I be worried?

Thankfully, you can probably figure this one out with math: according to Dr. Bilal Chughtai, a urogynecologist at Weill Cornell Medicine, a healthy person should expect to pee once for every cup of water drank. So if you drink 11 cups of a water a day (which, good for you!), peeing 11 times that day makes perfect sense. But if your bathroom breaks are disproportionate to the amount of water you’re drinking, you might want to see your doctor. Read more here.

Is my chest pain anxiety, or something more serious?

The question I always come back to is: Is there something wrong with my heart? I have asked my general practitioner and my therapist, and they both tell me I’m fine, and that there’s a 99 percent chance it’s anxiety. But there is REAL pain there. Sometimes it’s stabby. Sometimes it feels like heartburn. Sometimes it feels like my heart is racing. Sometimes it’s tied to my left arm (which feels troubling.) Sometimes it just feels like random dull pain. It always goes away (and tends to sneak up more when I’m thinking about it) but it still worries me a lot. Any thoughts on the topic would be much appreciated!

It’s really frustrating to feel dismissed by a doctor, and it’s something a lot of women in particular experience. Maryann McLaughlin, a cardiologist and medical director of the Cardiac Health Program at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, encourages anyone concerned about chest pain and/or heart palpitations to see a cardiologist — not because it isn’t anxiety, but because there are a number of other conditions that could be responsible (many of them mild), including mitrovalve prolapse syndrome, which just requires monitoring. Read more here.

Is drinking coffee messing with my hormones?

Lately my period has been preceded by a week or so of brown/red spotting. What are some likely culprits? Is it hormonal? When I Google, results suggest that I might be served, hormone-wise, by reducing my caffeine intake. I also lost some weight over the past two years (I started exercising and trying to eat well) — could that have anything to do with this? If so: brutal, because I feel great. But also, what am I doing wrong?

There are a lot, a lot, of studies done on coffee, and depending on which you click, you might be led to believe coffee is either the worst possible thing you could consume, or the best. But when it comes to coffee and hormones, there isn’t much available evidence that there’s any real correlation there. In fact, Dr. Lila Nachtigall, a gynecologist at NYU Langone Health, consulted the literature, and found not one reliable, strong study to support the idea that you should drink less/no coffee if you’re trying to get pregnant. Read more here.

Do I have a headache or a brain tumor?

Every once in a while I’ll get a headache in my right or left temple (it happens to both, but only one side at a time) that lasts for two or three days. And almost every time, I become convinced I have a brain tumor. Why else would I only feel it on ONE side like that, if not for a tumor pressing against that spot on my skull? I drink more water, I take Advil, and I sleep, and sometimes these things help. I can’t afford to get a brain scan every time this happens to me, as much as I might want to, sooo … what would it look like if I DID have a brain tumor?

Headaches are not a monolith, and there are a few distinct types with distinct symptoms and sensations: migraines, which are typically one-sided and accompanied by nausea and light sensitivity, among other things; tension headaches, which feel like a vise-like pressure around the skull; and cluster headaches, which are one-sided and very painful. “People with cluster headaches say it feels like somebody is sticking a hot poker through their eyeball,” says Dr. Lawrence Newman, the director of the headache division in the department of neurology at NYU Langone. Brain tumors, on the other hand? A headache might be part of it, but more noticeable will be the projectile vomiting. Read more here.

Is the mold in my shower the bad, “toxic” kind of mold?

In my head (and potentially just to soothe my own anxiety about it) I would imagine a good 60 to 95 percent of old New York City apartment bathrooms must have some type of mold growing in or around the shower area. I recently overheard someone saying that they had been evacuated from their apartment building for a deadly mold situation. I think I’m probably making a big leap here to assume that what I see in my shower from time to time will kill me, BUT still, I’m curious: What is the difference between the mold most people have, and the mold that is going to turn me into that sea lady from The Shape of Water? I’d really like to know if my daily shower habit should be taken more seriously.

Most household mold isn’t troublesome, says Dr. Philip Tierno, a professor of microbiology and pathology at the NYU School of Medicine. However! Dr. Tierno is also very adamant that household mold is very preventable if you clean your shower thoroughly, and dry it off (??) after you finish. Either way, most mold is unlikely to affect your health, unless you’re allergic. Read more here.

Do cold meds make you high?

Is Mucinex (or Claritin, or Sudafed) making me high? I swear every time I take an allergy or cold medication, I feel floaty and fuzzy-brained. And NyQuil definitely makes me hungover. What are the cold drugs doing to me??

It’s not that most over-the-counter cold meds are making you high, exactly, but a lot of them do more than you need them to, and that can definitely make you feel loopy, says Albert Ahn, clinical instructor of internal medicine at NYU Langone Health. In general, unless you have a cough, it’s best to avoid medicines with “DM” in the name, which refers to dextromethorphan, which can cause “dizziness, confusion, cognitive slowing, drowsiness, sleepiness,” says Ahn. Read more here.

The Year in Hypochondria