Asthma has been mentioned in literature and medical texts as far back as ancient Egypt and Greece. Since these early times, physicians have been searching for the causes and cures of this potentially fatal ailment. Surprisingly, some treatments recommended then are still in use now.
Asthma in ancient history
In 2600 B.C., Chinese physicians mentioned a disorder involving wheezing and respiratory problems. An ancient Egyptian papyrus dated to about 1550 B.C. describes numerous medical conditions, including a respiratory ailment that was to be treated by inhaling fumes from herbs that were heated on a brick.
The term asthma, derived from the Greek aazein, appears in the Iliad, where Homer uses it to describe breathlessness that results from exertion. This is the first recorded use of the term. Later, Hippocrates, who lived from 460-360 B.C., was the first to use it as a medical term-but not necessarily to describe a specific condition. His definition of asthma was any type of breathlessness. Aazein itself means a sharp breath, or to exhale with an open mouth.
Asthma continued to crop up in medical texts, along with symptoms and treatments. Maimonides, a Jewish philosopher and physician, observed respiratory problems in the court of Sultan Saladin. Among other suggestions, he prescribed chicken soup-an approach familiar even to modern sufferers.
History of asthma treatment
Herbal treatments for asthma were commonly included in ancient records. Egyptians recommended inhaling the fumes from certain herbs, while the Chinese suggested inhaling herbs containing ephedrine-a precursor of today's epinephrine treatments. The Aztecs also used an ephedrine-containing herb to treat respiratory problems.
Historical treatises on asthma have also noted that symptoms could be made worse by exposure to pollen or other allergens. Pliny the Elder, who was born about 23 A.D., noticed this correlation, as did physicians from the 17th and 18th centuries, who recommended avoiding these triggers.
Asthma is classified as a psychosomatic illness
In the 1930s through the 1950s, in spite of a long history of asthma as a medical condition, asthma was classified as a psychological problem in Western medicine. It was included on the "Holy Seven" list of psychosomatic illnesses, along with rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, peptic ulcer and other problems now known to be medical issues. Although asthma can be triggered by stress or intense emotion and can have a long-term psychological effect on its sufferers, it is definitely not a psychosomatic illness.
Fortunately, by the 1960s physicians began to use anti-inflammatory medications to treat asthma, including corticosteroids. In 1957, the rescue inhaler was invented, and many additional innovations have been made in asthma treatment since then.
Today, asthma is treated with long-term preventive medications, as well as short-term "rescue" treatments. Corticosteroids help treat overall inflammation, reducing the likelihood of asthma attacks, while bronchodilators delivered via inhaler help stave off attacks when they happen.
With careful management, asthma does not have to keep a person from enjoying life or from being active. Even some professional athletes suffer from asthma and use medication and other approaches to keep it under control.
As doctors continue to work with asthma patients, more treatments will be introduced to further control and manage this respiratory syndrome.