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Monday, March 22, 2010

Ancient asthma remedies

This post is the first in a series I plan on writing about the history of asthma. This was originally published at

Check Out These 19th Century Asthma Remedies!
by Rick Frea Friday, December 18, 2009

Being a lifelong asthmatic, I've often wondered what life would be like for us asthmatics if we lived before rescue medicine like Albuterol was invented. I bet it would have resulted in some long, agonizing days and nights.

I was surprised to find there were many books written about asthma. The most popular was a 19th Century book called "On Asthma" by Dr. Henry Hyde Salter in 1882. His book provided remedies that gave hope to many child asthma sufferers, including Teddy Roosevelt. Although you might agree with Teddy that most of these weren't remedies at all, but torture.

1. Ipecac: It causes nausea and makes you vomit (sounds like fun). Salter observed that asthmatics with full stomachs had increased trouble breathing. He also believed irritants in food may cause asthma, so if you vomit and clear your stomach contents you will have an easier time breathing. (I'm not making this up).

Modern thought: A full stomach presses up on your diaphragm and thus squishes your lungs making it harder to breath. The irritants Salter is referring to in the food may now be known as food allergies. This medicine is thankfully no longer recommended for asthma.

2. Tobacco: Salter encouraged kids having trouble breathing to smoke cigarettes. But, instead of inhaling, hold the smoke in as long as you can -- literally "ad nauseum". For prophylactic therapy, smoke a daily cigar.

Modern thought: Smoke is an irritant. Not only that, smoking will increase your chances of developing COPD, and thus making your breathing worse in the long run.

3. Strong coffee: Salter observed sleepiness and drowsiness favored asthma. So, if you stay awake you won't have an attack. Strong tea, ammonia, and ether also work to produce this same effect. Go ahead and pick your poison.

Modern thought: The caffeine in coffee is a methylxanthine, which is a mild bronchodilator. Theophyllin is a methyxantine that became popular for asthma in the 1950s because it is a much stronger bronchodilator.

4. Indian Hemp: Otherwise known as marijuana. Like coffee, it increases your mental acuity. It makes you more vivid.

Modern thought: Marijuana is an asthma irritant. It too can cause more complicated lung problems down the road. It's an absolute no-no for asthmatics.

5.Alcohol: Recommended only in the face of "horrible suffering" because it is habit forming. Salter's theory was alcohol worked similar to coffee and hemp in that it stimulates and "gives a sort of shock.. to the nervous system..." and thus stops the asthma attack.

Modern thought: Alcohol has some molds and fungus in it that may trigger asthma. It also dries out your airway and may cause or make worse an asthma attack.

6. Chloriform: Again, I'm not making this up. Taken in small doses (and always in someone's company) it induces sleep, completely relaxes all your muscles (including your bronchiole muscles) and when you wake up your asthma attack will be gone.

Modern thought: It depresses the central nervous system and causes dizziness, fatigue, headache, nausea and even death. It may also damage the kidneys and liver. It is way too dangerous and risky to use for asthma.

7. Opium: It induces a relaxed state and thus cures bronchospasm. Salter didn't usually recommend it because he believed sleepiness induced asthma.

Modern thought: Morphine is a mild bronchodilator used in hospitals to cause a relaxed state that can reduce the feeling of dyspnea (air hunger) in end-stage lung disease like COPD, pulmonary fibrosis, cystic fibrosis and cancer.

8. Strammonium: Smoked in a pipe since ancient times for shortness of breath. Salter didn't recommend it for anything other than as a preventative medicine.

Modern thought: Atropine was purified from Belladona in the 1930s, and later was refined in the form of Atrovent and Spiriva. The Belladona plant is very similar to Strammonium. This line of medicine is no longer considered a top line asthma therapy, but is still used in some cases and in hospitals.

9. Lobelia: This is also referred to as Indian tobacco, as it was used by American Indians to induce vomiting and forcibly clear the airway of mucus. It was smoked in a pipe like Indian hemp, tobacco and strammonium. It is also referred to as "puke weed." This therapy was not recommended by Salter. But he said it works for some.

Modern thought: It was recently used as a nicotine substitute to help people quit smoking, but it was banned for use in cigarettes in 1993.

10. Ether: Salter wrote, "Ether is mentioned as a remedy... by almost all writers on the disease. I have never seen but one case in which it did any good."

Modern thought: It's only used as a anaesthetic in 3rd world countries.

Well, there you have it. Aren't you happy now you were born in the modern asthma era? So, if you were born in the 19th century, what poison would you prefer? If you're like me, you now appreciate your Ventolin all the more.

1 comment:

Ed said...

My grandmother grew up in the country in the 20's and 30's. She went to school with a little girl who had bad asthma, and the prescription was smoking.

Imagine a 7 or 8 year old puffing away to cure their asthma! Gramma did mention she missed a lot of school..wonder why!