Sick Is the New Black

You race to the doctor with sniffles; store Z-packs in your desk drawer; and you know a specialist for every bump, bruise, and body part. Why are so many women freaking out about getting sick? Sarah Z. Wexler explores the growing phenomenon.

I once knew a woman in her mid-20s — let's call her Kate — who, in the three years we worked together, never had a cold. That's not to say Kate never took a sick day, because she took plenty. Whenever she was under the weather — scratchy throat, upset stomach, you name it — she immediately informed our boss she was feeling ill and ran to the doctor's office. And if that doctor didn't send Kate home with a prescription for Zithromax (or "Z-pack," as she familiarly called it), she'd make an appointment with a specialist, certain that her general practitioner had overlooked something critical. Bronchitis. Kidney infection. A parasite. Whatever. Over the course of our working relationship, I'd received dozens of dire e-mails from Kate in which she expressed utter certainty that she'd come down with every malady imaginable short of West Nile. (And had we not been experiencing the snowiest winter in history last year, I'm certain she'd have taken her mosquito bites to an epidemiologist for a look, too.)

To be clear, Kate wasn't a classic hypochondriac, worrying that every paper cut was a staph infection waiting to happen. She was smart, educated, and driven, a textbook overachiever who happened to use doctors the way Beyoncé wannabes use YouTube — to prove they're somehow special, though, let's face it, most of the time they really aren't. Odds are good you know someone just like Kate — she's one of the millions of young women who have no hesitation heading to the doctor at the first sign of flushed cheeks. According to the Centers for Disease Control, a woman between the ages of 18 and 44 averaged 2.6 doctor visits a year in 1995. As of 2009, it was about 3.2 visits. (Men averaged only 1.4 visits a year in 2009.) That amounts to roughly 34 million more doctor visits a year — and if you've ever stewed in your physician's waiting area for almost an hour just to see her for all of 10 minutes, you understand very well what the net effect of all those extra visits is.

So why are more women heading to the doctor more often? "It's not likely because they're sicker than they used to be," says Elaine Larson, professor of epidemiology at Columbia University School of Public Health. Larson thinks it's all those over-wrought, soft-lens TV ads for prescription drugs — strict regulations governing direct-to-consumer advertising were loosened up in 1997 — that encourage patients to essentially diagnose themselves and "'ask their doctor' about every symptom." In fact, an FDA study conducted in 2002 confirmed a link between drug ads and a surge in patient inquiries about specific brand-name medications.

Other factors have contributed to the growing number of women making knee-jerk visits to their doctors. Among them: cable news virus-mongering. Though antibiotic-resistant MRSA, mad cow disease, swine flu, bird flu, and SARS are extremely rare and affect only a tiny speck of the U.S. population (you have better odds of winning the Powerball while on a date with Ryan Gosling than contracting any one of these oddball maladies), the constant, blaring coverage of these "pandemics" no doubt heightens the hysteria that your cough isn't really just a cough. In early September, I caught an episode of Katie Couric's new talk show featuring 24-year-old all-American beauty Aimee Copeland, who, over the span of two weeks, was rendered a quadruple amputee by a flesh- eating virus. Trust me, after seeing something like that, I certainly wouldn't cast aspersions on anyone who ran to the doctor with a particularly gruesome nick incurred while shaving.

But in my coworker Kate's case, I suspect that the real driving force behind her incessant doctor visits was deeply personal. Here was a woman who believed she was extraordinary in every sense of the word: always the first one in the office and the last to leave; the first to volunteer on any and all projects; a type A workaholic who, in her mind at least, had already redecorated the corner office she fully expected to one day occupy. And so it was with her body: Even her ailments couldn't be ordinary.

This mentality rings true for a lot of women. "I tend to think between work, taking care of my house, making sure my 2-year-old is all set, the nanny, the bills, all that stuff — that I've run myself ragged to the point of making myself really, really vulnerable to something," a New York-based brand development manager confesses. "It's why when my husband gets sick, I think he only has a cold and is being a big baby. But when I get sick, I'm gravely concerned it's life-threatening, like cancer. The underlying philosophy is that I'm working myself to death, I guess."

The problem is that hitting up the doctor for every sore throat and stomachache won't make you any healthier. In fact, all those unnecessary visits could actually do more harm than good. "A substantial body of research has shown that medical care can be the source of illness — infections acquired as a result of exposure to a health-care setting, toxic effects of prescriptions, and complications from procedures," warns Dr. Thomas Glass, a professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. In fact, studies have estimated that one-quarter to one-third of all illnesses are iatrogenic — meaning they were inadvertently contracted while a patient was getting medical treatment. (Lord knows how many germy snivelers have fingered that dog-eared copy of Reader's Digest before you.)

So what should you do when you feel like you're coming down with something? For starters, take a deep breath — it's almost certainly a run-of-the-mill thing and not some news-making amoeba. Usually the standard course of action for a cold, the flu, or a virus is straight out of the Mother Knows Best manual: Sleep more, stock up on some chicken soup, and do the world a favor by covering your mouth when you cough. If you're not better in a few days, go see your doctor. But note to self: Bring your own magazine.

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