Friday, September 4, 2015

625-690: What did the ancients think of colds and allergies?

Viral and bacterial infections, common colds, allergies, hay fever, rhinitis and other such affections of the upper respiratory tract were generally all considered one and the same thing for most of history.

They were generally referred to as coryza, catarrh, and cough.  They were basically symptoms, and therefore the disease.  Coryza being inflammation of the nasal passages, catarrh being increased mucus and discharge in the nose and throat, and cough being a cough.  (1, page 469)

Paulis Aegineta, our Arabic medical historian from the 7th century, said "All these complains have this in common, that they are occasioned by the defluxion of a redundant humour  from the head to the parts below.   (1, page 469)

This basically meant that there was too much phlegm in the brain, and when this occurs it spreads to the nasal passages, mouth, throat, and lungs.  Therefore, the same cause also resulted in diseases of the throat and lungs, including croup and asthma.

Aegineta generally worded it this way:
When, therefore, it seats in the nostrils, the disease is called coryza; when in the pharynx and roof of the mouth, simply catarrh; but when it attacks the larynx and arteria trachea, so as to occasion a roughness of the membrane which lines them, the voice becomes hoarse, and the disease is called branchus, or morbus arteriacus: these terms being applicable not only to the inflammatory roughness occasioned by a defluxion from the head, but also to that arising from vociferation and inhaling cold air. (1, page 469)
It makes sense that they believed it was caused by inhaling cold air, considering people are more likely to catch a virus or bacteria when huddled close together in a warm room due to cold weather outdoors.  Yet they would have associated it with the cold air.

Cough pneumonia and influenza were also likely to be caused by the same thing. Aegineta said:
When the complaint is protracted, and the defluxion is carried down to the chest and lungs, it gives rise to bad coughs. And a cough often arises from an intemperament; sometimes a hot one, as in fevers, and sometimes a cold, as in northerly states of the weather, which is rather a dry one. Cough is also sometimes symptomatic of some other disease, such as pleurisy, hepatitis, phthisis, or peripneumonia. (1, pages 469-470)
Another disease would have been chronic bronchitis, which was not officially a disease until many centuries later.  Paulus might have been referring to this when he wrote:
Wherefore Galen relates that, in certain chronic cases of cough, chalazia (hail-stones) have been brought up from the chest. But Alexander relates that a certain heavy stone, like that which forms in the urinary organs, was brought up in a chronic cough, upon which the cough ceased. (1, page 470)
 Paulus lists the following as remedies for coryza and catarrh: (1, pages 470-471)

  • Baths, and have a large quantity of hot water poured upon the head
  • Foods such as spoon-meats and eggs in a state to be supped, starch, sweet cake, sesame, rice, almonds, the fruit of the cones of pine, and all confections from milk. 
  • The wines which are drunk should be sweet and not old.
  • A restricted diet is to be observed, and the head anointed with some heating and attenuating ointment, such as that of nard or rue.
  • The ointment of iris is not only to be rubbed in, but is also to be injected into the nostrils
  • Internally, they are to be rubbed with frankincense and myrrh, with oil; and this more especially when the coryza arises from cold.
  • Odoriferous substances with burnt linen, or by gith and cumin burnt and bound up in a linen rag.
  • Let them also smell to the cyphi seleniacum, and let it be rubbed into the forehead; and to it let there be added one of the antiphlogistic plasters, such as the Icesian, the Oxera, the Barbarum, and the Athena.
  • For catarrh from cold it will be expedient to drink of cyphi, and to rub into the chest the juice of balsam by means of unwashed wool
  • Apply calefacients to it (the chest), along with storax, the ointment of iris, or that of dill. 
  • Let them also use hot and concocting food. But when the matter is already concocted, a masticatory will answer well with them, and detergent ointments (smegmata) to the head, such as the soap of Constantine, and the like (1, pages 470-471)
For affections of throat and trachea and coughs, the remedies are essentially the same, so I won't go into them.  Chances are none of these remedies did much good anyway, other than to have a placebo effect.

He does, however, offer some recipes for pills that might be useful for catarrh and cough.  He said:
Of storax, of myrrh, of opium, of galbanum, equal parts; mix with must, or pound by themselves in a mortar, and make into pills the size of a tare. Give three, four, or five at bedtime, and swallow with some must. These things are for an acrid and thin rheum.—Another: Of the seed of henbane... of pine-nuts... of saffron.  Mix with rob or with must, and use. An electuary. Of honey  of butter.... Boil together and give; and let the decoction of hyssop, of figs, of pinenuts, and of iris, be swallowed. Pills for more inveterate coughs. Of storax... of myrrh... of turpentine, of galbanum, of opopanax, and of iris, of each..., of white pepper, of nitre, of henbane-seeds, of the juice of poppy, of each... Beat in a mortar without any liquid, form into pills, and use as formerly directed. (1, page 472)
Francis Adams said that most of the other ancient physicians, with the exception of Aretaeus, agreed with Paulus Aegineta regarding his description and treatment of coryza, catarrh, cough and common throat ailments. The same is true of Arabian physicians.  So we have no reason to delve into their thoughts on the subject. However, if you want to learn about them, you can click on the link provided below. (1, page 472)

However, it must be understood that most physicians, no matter what era they are from, have form their own opinions about diseases and their remedies, and so how you were treated would depend on who your physician was.

Don't scratch your head trying to figure out what all these remedies are or what they amount to.  I just wanted to show you what some of the remedies would be if you suffered from the common cold or allergies in the ancient world.  

Chances are, you'd be better off toughing it out, which is probably what most people did.  

  1. Aegineta, Paulus, "The Seven Books of Paulus Aegineta," translated by Francis Adams, volume I, 1844, The Snydenham Society, pages 469-475 
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