Medicine Of Yesterday: How We Used To Treat The Cold And Flu

14/04/2016 7:34 PM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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William Harvey demonstrating his theory of the circulation of the blood to King Charles I. Harvey (1578-1657), an English physician, was the first Western doctor to correctly detail the circulatory system. His work 'De Motu Cordis' remains a milestone in s

cold and flu

In 2016, if you come down with a cold or the flu it's highly unlikely a medical practitioner will require a litre of your blood in order to make you feel better. And if they do, trust us on this one -- you need to start seeing a new GP.

However, waaaay back in the olden days, a litre (or more) of blood could be the price you paid to get rid of the sniffles. Or your doctor could cover you in leeches. Or ask you to stick your head in a steam bath of sulphate. Basically, a nice mug of Lemsip and a good night's rest quite simply weren't an option.

In order to celebrate the oncoming cold and flu season (hooray!) The Huffington Post Australia spoke to medical historian Dr Peter Hobbins from the The University of Sydney about some of the bizarre methods used to treat cold and flu-like symptoms in the past, and why (a bit like Vegemite's iSnack 2.0) they seemed like a good idea at the time.

"Some of the the treatments certainly, to the modern day observer, appear extremely strange," Hobbins told HuffPost Australia. "But at the time, to the people who used them, they made some sense.

"Some were spiritual. Some environmental. Most attempted to deal with the symptoms a cold or flu would present."

The time period Hobbins is talking about is "in the 1600s or 1700s" when the system of Western medicine employed was humorism, or the theory of the four humours.

"This system focuses on the four humours; bile, black bile, blood and phlegm. Now if you think of the symptoms of a bad cold of flu -- so fever, coughing, sneezing, headache, bodily pains, an overwhelming desire to lie down, skin turning quite red -- have some elements of the humours in them.

"To have red skin and to go warm, for instance, was associated with blood. So if a patient felt hot, looked red, seemed congested, that could indicate there was too much blood in their body.

"Most likely the physician would think something along the lines of 'what we need to do is reduce amount of blood in their body and restore balance."

This practice of blood-letting could be done in a few equally unappealing ways, such as slicing open a vein or two.

"A physician could cut open a vein, not infrequently a major one. Perhaps a vein on the arm or chest or even temple," Hobbins said. "The patient could bleed sometimes quite a substantial amount. It would certainly be more than what is typically taken in a [450ml] blood donation now.

"I would say it wouldn't be unusual to bleed them of several pints. When you think of the fact two pints is nearly a litre of blood, and we only have five litres of blood in our body, total, that's quite a significant loss."

Enlisting the help of leeches or using the 'cupping' method were also popular.

"Cupping and leeches followed a similar type of thinking, in that by removing excess blood, you would reduce the heat and reduce the congestion.

"So what was often practiced was cupping, which involved taking a small teacup, heating it up, and placing it usually on the upper body around the chest.

"You'd use six or a dozen cups and basically draw up a big blood blister -- a bit like giving someone a big hickey, it's the same premise -- just drawing the blood to the surface of the body."


A patient before and after a cupping treatment.

In fact, anything seen to purge the body of something 'bad' was encouraged, whether it be an excess of blood, phlegm or even faeces.

"Sometimes people would have diarrhea along with the other cold or flu symptoms," Hobbins said. "Which isn't that strange, if you think about it. If someone is producing a lot of mucus and swallowing it, it's not unusual to have a bit of bowel upset.

"But people of this age would see the bowels evidently trying to get rid of this stuff and think, 'let’s give them a helping hand. Let’s purge'.

"Treatments included licorice to help cause diarrhea, and rhubarb was seen to help clear out phlegm. Of course what people didn't realise was that by encouraging someone to sneeze or cough would mean the more likely it became the disease would spread."

'Medical' treatments based on superstition or religion were also common, including the belief that a particular illness could be due to the placement of the stars.

"It was also thought a strange conjunction in the sky could be casting illness across the land," Hobbins said. "Stars were thought to dictate the humours in our bodies. Unfortunately, there was not much you could do about it, if it was in the stars, aside from wait it out.

"Any sort of epidemic flu or plague could be thought to be a result of divine punishment, either something one person or an entire community had done wrong. In this case, treatments were much more spiritual. People might build a little shrine, or pray, or go on a pilgrimage."

Of course, medical treatments have advanced in leaps and bounds since those days, but certainly didn't come without hiccups along the way. Hobbins lists the preferred treatment of Spanish Influenza in 1919 as one example.

"The Spanish flu was a very serious epidemic. Something like three in every 1000 people died from it," Hobbins said.

"Unfortunately, in trying to treat the airways, a popular treatment method was the use of an inhalation chamber in which a person would stick their head in a steam bath of sulphate.

"It turns out sulphate actually irritates your airways, and by irritating your airways, you were actually more prone to the flu than if you hadn't done anything at all."

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