History of Asthma (Part One)- In The Beginning

The earliest recorded instance of respiratory distress was from china in 2600 BC. It was characterized as “noisy breathing” which could be what we know as wheezing today. There are many tales and legends of herbal remedies that are undocumented that date back even farther.

In ancient Egyptian times, the Georg Ebers papyrus which was found in Egypt in the 1870s contained prescriptions written in hieroglyphics for over 700 remedies for breathing related issues. One of the remedies was to heat herbs over bricks and inhale the fumes.

The Babylonian “Code of Hammurabi” recorded symptoms of being breathless in 1792 BC.

Origins of Asthma

The term Asthma comes from the Greek word aazein which means to exhale with an open mouth, to pant, and sharp breath.

Hippocrates (460 BC) was the first to use the term Asthma as a panting and respiratory distress. He is considered by many to be the physician who identified the relationship between respiratory disease & the environment. He classified Asthma as a clinical entity or merely a symptom and was more likely to occur among metal workers, anglers and tailors.

When Alexander the Great invaded India in 327 BC, smoking the herb stramonium (which is an anticholinergic agent related to ipratropium and tiotropium which are currently used in inhalers today) was used to help relax the lungs.

Doctors during the Roman times described asthma as gasping and the inability to breathe without noise, which we now know as wheezing. They also made the connection that symptoms would worsen upon physical activity. Pliny the elder (around 50 AD) found that pollen was often times a a source of breathing difficulty and recommended the use of “ephedra” (forerunner of epinephrine) mixed in red wine as a treatment.

Aretaeus of Cappadocia (100 AD), a Greek physician, is credited with the first accurate description of asthma, as we know it today. He wrote symptoms include chest heaviness, difficulty in breathing and tiredness. If the patient’s condition gets worse, the symptoms will become more prominent and the cough becomes more frequent and laborious. He also stated that as the paroxysm ceases, the cough becomes less urgent and less frequent, the voice sonorous, and the body relaxes. Thus, asthmatics escape death, but in the intervals between severe attacks or even when they are walking on ground level, they bear in mind the symptoms of the disease. Some of his recommended treatments for asthma included drinking owls blood in wine.

Claudius Galen (129 AD) was well known for his extensive study of anatomy as well as being an excellent physician in Rome. He contributed to the knowledge respiratory illness and is credited as the first to discover that respiration was the result of muscular contractions and substantiated this theory by observing that respiratory rate could be consciously controlled.

The Jewish Talmud (200-500 AD) recommended drinking “three weights of hiltith” which is a resin in the carrot family as a treatment for asthma like symptoms. A Jewish physician & scholar by the name of Maimonides (1135-1204 AD) prescribed sleep, fluids, and chicken soup. He noted that his patients symptoms became worse during the wet months which proceeded to the person gasping for air and coughing until phlegm was expelled.

Stay tuned for Part Two where we continue the asthma journey into modern history!

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