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Hot on the Web

Medical info online

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on April 15, 2005
(Issue 2315, Put Away Your Credit Card)

Spending Easter weekend fighting off a nasty bout of bronchitis can put one in a frame of mind to try to learn as much about this stupid cough as one can. Short of a long wait in an emergency room or critical care clinic, camping out in the living room with a blanket and bottle of cough syrup browsing the Web is about the best I could do.

The best-known online medical reference site (thanks to an aggressive marketing campaign), WebMD is also a very informative and useful site.

(Of course, it needs to be pointed out that none of these sites is any substitute for seeing a doctor – and first thing Monday morning, I fully plan to call my doctor's office.)

In my case, I typed "bronchitis" into the search box, and then clicked on the second entry – "Understanding bronchitis – the basics." I learned that 90 percent of bronchial infections are viral. That if you're in good health it's not that serious. That "sputum" is an unavoidable side effect (yuch!).

And, disappointingly, that the hacking cough generally lasts two to three weeks, even though the infection itself usually only lasts two to four days. Not what I (or my co-workers) wanted to hear.

The rest of the site is impressively deep, with articles on just about any medical issue or condition you can imagine. Not sure who publishes it (the About Us page is fairly vague in that regard), but they do have a half-dozen or so doctors serving as an editorial review board to ensure accuracy. And the site is advertising supported - with all the same medical-products ads you can see on late-night cable TV.

Another well-known site is one named after the avuncular former U.S. surgeon general, C. Everett Koop. While Dr. Koop himself is no longer associated with the site (with a disclaimer pointing this out at the bottom of each page), this is still a very useful, very informative site. Their entries are uniformly well-written, in plain English (with enough medical phrases like "purulent sputum" to gross you out), and often illustrated (not the sputum, fortunately).

Government sources

The National Institutes of Health and the U.S. National Library of Medicine join forces to publish MedlinePlus, which operates very similarly to, only without the advertising.

This seems to be more of an index than an encyclopedia, though, because when I searched for bronchitis and clicked on one of the search results, I was redirected to the Mayo Clinic site.

The state-supported University of Iowa runs the Virtual Hospital site. Organized around twin goals of helping physicians and patients, most topics have entries for both. The patient entries are easy to understand, informative and really let you know what's going on. There are entries for any condition I could think of.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (popularly known in the media as the CDC) has a Web site, but it's not really aimed at the general public nor at describing symptoms and disease. Still, if you ever want to know how many Americans die of bronchitis each year, this is the site to visit. (And, no, I did not look that up!)

Other resources

Not that getting referred to the world-famous Mayo Clinic is all bad. Their Web site is as deep as any on the 'Net. It's well-organized, easy to navigate and/or search, and when you do find the condition you want to learn about, the entries are well-written and easy to understand. Bookmarking this site is a must.

Another site that MedlinePlus referred me to was, maintained by the American Academy of Family Physicians. Interestingly, the entry here suggested visiting a doctor for a cough only after a week or more has gone by with no improvement. This site was also quite deep and comprehensive; if not quite as chock-full o'information as or, it is very close. is another pretty informative resource. Maintained by a medical reference publisher, its entries are as long or informative as some of the others sites', but it seems to cover most conditions. was a disappointment; a search for bronchitis brought up nothing on normal, acute bronchitis – every entry was on causes of chronic bronchitis, so I could read all I wanted on emphysema, cancer or smoking. Just not what I was looking for. The organization throughout seemed a bit, well, weird. Maybe the site is designed for professionals more than the lay public.