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Thursday, May 8, 2014

Asthma in the ancient world

The following was originally published on 12/9/11 at

How was asthma treated in the ancient world

It's a blessing to be alive during a time when there are many options to help us asthmatics.  We have rescue medicine like Albuterol to cure an attack, and asthma controller medicines to prevent asthma altogether.

Yet could you imagine living 5,000 years ago?  How would you treat your asthma in the ancient world?

The following are things that might be recommended in ancient Egypt:
  • Enemas
  • Animal excreta (including crocodile and camel dung)
  • Herbs such as squill and henbane
  • Leaves of the Belladona plant heated on a brick so the asthmatic can inhale the fumes
  • Eating foods like figs, grapes, frankincense, cumin, juniper fruit
  • Sipping wine and sweet beer
Surely the best remedy was the belladona plant, which was the mother of modern medicines like Atrovent and Spiriva.  It's a mild bronchodilator.  Yet if you're like me, you know neither of these does much to calm an attack.

So what if you lived in Ancient China or India about 1,000 years before Christ?  Would your life be any better?

Actually, the Ancient Chinese used a medicine called Ma Huang.  It was served up as a bitter tasting yellow tea, and may actually have provided relief from the asthma attack.

By 1901 the Ma Huang was referred to as the Ephedra species of plant, and from it was extracted ephedrine, a bronchodilator similar to Albuterol.  It was only recently taken off the shelves. 

Too bad there wasn't better communication back then, because this ephedra plant could have provided relief for asthmatics in the rest of the world.

So what about India?  In India asthma-like symptoms were called Tamaka Swasa.  Treatment might have included: 
  • Steam
  • Inhaled Cinnamon
  • Castor bean oil
  • Insect resin
  • Tumeric
  • Arsenics
  • Inhaling smoke from the leaves of the Datura plant
  • Herbal ointments
  • Leaves of Camellia sinensis served as a tea
The best options here would be the Datura plant, which is from the same family as Belladona.

Camellia sinensis is a plant to which the mild bronchodilator theophylline was derived from in 1888.  It was a top line asthma medicine in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.

So you can see that if you were in the right place at the right time in the ancient world there were options to help you breathe better.  Some may actually have done some good.

Yet most treatment was only palliative, like the soothing touch of a physician, or the incantations of a priest.  Most treatment just gave you hope or soothed your mind. 

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