The History of Asthma Treatments

October 03, 2013 2 min read

Green Vios Adult NebulizerIt begs the question: what did asthmatics do before inhalers and nebulizers were invented? To find out, let’s go back in time and examine some antiquated asthma cures. Spoiler alert – some of the treatments of the past are pretty cringeworthy:

Ancient Greece – The term “asthma” is actually Greek in origins. It comes from the herb aazein (to pant), and appeared for the first time in The Iliad, Homer’s famous epic poem. Ancient Greek medicine regarded the condition as one stemming from internal imbalances, and treated it largely through seasonings like pepper, cinnamon, mugwort flowers, and fennel tea.

Ancient Egypt – The Georg Ebers Papyrus, found in Egypt in the 1870s, contains prescriptions (written in hieroglyphics, of course) for over 700 asthma remedies. Herbal treatments were common; the ancient Egyptians would heat up herbs on a brick, and inhale the fumes through a reed. Other cures included grapes, garlic, and the droppings of camels and crocodiles.

The Middle Ages – There’s a reason this period is often coined the “Dark Ages.” Medical science was pretty unsophisticated, so most diseases were caused by “bad blood” caused by evil spirits or demons. Aside from prayer, the only solutions for illnesses such as asthma involved physically removing the bad blood, e.g. cutting the patient’s veins or applying blood-sucking leeches to the skin. Here’s the best part – these treatments persisted into the 19th century!

The Renaissance – When explorers crossed the sea to the New World, they discovered ipecacuanha, which proved useful in treating bronchial inflammation (the plant’s roots are still used today to make ipecac syrup). Far more significant was the discovery of tobacco – a cash crop that people regarded as a powerful drug for treating pulmonary ailments up until the mid-20th century! Thankfully, we now know that smoking is very, very bad for your lungs.

So there you have it – a millennium and a half of asthma treatments. Just think, how might history have turned out differently if everyone had access to a nebulizer? I’ll be writing another post soon on post-Renaissance treatments, which are just as wacky – fox lung powder, anyone?