The Complete History and Discovery of Asthma and Its Treatments

Graphic of LungsAs a chronic condition, just like epilepsy and diabetes, asthma has been around for as long as there have been people to suffer from it.

Although aspects such as air pollution and a modern diet may be responsible for aggravating its effects, the disease itself is in no way a recent development.

Also, like many chronic diseases, there currently is no cure available, although a variety of treatment options do exist.

Looking at the history of asthma is a fascinating thing to study. The changing theories on how it is caused as well as how to remedy the symptoms has drastically changed throughout the years.

In the article below, we’ll share with you the complete history and treatments of asthma, starting from what we know from ancient China, all the way up to present day breakthroughs.

It is impossible to predict how long sufferers will still have to wait for a cure to asthma to become available, but we can be certain that we are, at this moment, closer to achieving that than at any time before.

After you’re done reading this article, you may be interested in our comprehensive list of asthma facts and statistics here.

Asthma in Historical Writings

Although they might not have called it “asthma”, ancient doctors certainly knew about the condition and its diagnosis.

In terms of surviving written records, a Chinese text dating back to 2600 B.C. lays out the symptoms of a syndrome involving “noisy breathing”. The doctors of the time even had some idea of how to treat it, some of which would have been arguably ineffective, although there are exceptions. For instance, breathing the vapor from certain smoldering herbs draws plant-based ephedrine into the lungs, which indeed alleviated the symptoms of asthma.

Photo of the Code of Hammurabi
Image © BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA 3.0

On the other side of Asia, the 18th century B.C. Babylonian text “The Code of Hammurabi”, despite being primarily a book on law, also refers to the signs of asthma with the phrase “if a man’s lungs pant with his work.”

We can thank the ancient Greeks, however, for the actual term “asthma”. This originally referred to any shortness of breath, regardless of its medical cause, first appearing in the famous poem The Iliad from the 8th century B.C.

The word’s meaning became more exact as time passed and knowledge grew, making its first known appearance as medical jargon in a book by Hippocrates entitled Corpus Hippocraticum, written around the 4th century B.C.

Two hundred years later in the 2nd century B.C., another Greek named Galen correctly speculated that asthma was due to the bronchial tubes being blocked somehow.

Although the doctors of the time did not have much knowledge of chemistry and other modern sciences, they still managed to advance their knowledge through observation. By the 12th century A.D, Moses Maimonide was writing a book specifically about the causes of and therapeutic options for asthma. In the Treatise of Asthma he refers to a recommended diet, the general health effects of asthma, as well as some treatment options. One of his perceptive remarks refers to the interaction between asthma, other respiratory complaints such as the common cold, and seasonally humid weather in Egypt. An abstract and full text of Maimonides’ text can be found at the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

During the Renaissance, a Belgian physician named Jean Baptiste Van Helmont discovered the mechanism causing asthma was located in the lung tubes; while Bernardino Ramazzini later described asthma as being caused or worsened by heavy physical activity and breathing in organic contaminants.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the indigenous people were also not unaware of the existence of asthma and had some medications of their own. The Aztecs, in what is today Mexico, ate a herb containing ephedra to clear up the lungs, while the Incas in modern-day Peru used a plant similar to the cocaine bush. Tobacco, first appearing in Europe in the 16th century, was a treatment option used to cause mucus to be expelled through coughing. Like arsenic, which was a standard treatment for breathlessness in the 19th century, your doctor is not likely to prescribe either of these solutions in the present day.

The Beginning of Modern Understanding of Asthma

Photo of Henry Hyde SalterThe concept of the disease was finally formalized during the 19th century in an academic work called On Asthma and its Treatment by Henry Hyde Salter. Asthma was described as “Paroxysmal dyspnoea of a peculiar character with intervals of healthy respiration between attacks”, where involuntary contraction of the surrounding muscles causes airways to be compressed.

Like the Aztecs and Incas, Salter’s suggested treatment for asthma at that time was another type of plant, coffee. Coffee was an effective treatment option because it contains a natural anti-asthmatic compound, theobromine, which interestingly enough is also found in chocolate.

By the time the medical profession accepted Salter’s work, asthma was seen as a diagnosable condition with its own clinical description, causes and treatment regimen.

In 1892, when the historic textbook Principles and Practice of Medicine was published by Sir William Osler, the following characteristics of the disease were also fairly well understood:

  • Bronchial muscle contractions caused difficulty in breathing
  • Swelling of the bronchial mucus membrane increased thick mucus that is difficult to expel
  • Asthma was hereditary and often started in the patient’s early years
  • Causes for an asthmatic attack included climate and atmospheric changes, psychological shock, a variety of specific food items, and being diagnosed with a virus or cold

Where the Science is Today

The 20th century saw the large-scale use of statistical studies on asthma and other diseases.

This lead to the confirmation of a genetic cause and the compilation of lists containing a large number of factors that can potentially induce an asthma attack, which those prone to the disease could now avoid.

Along with improving the sufferer’s environment, effective asthma medication began appearing in the 1940’s. Adrenaline (epinephrine) injections and aminophylline pills started becoming, soon followed by other medicines in tablet form, intended to be taken over the long term to suppress asthma symptoms.

Specialized asthma research received a boost in 1969 with the establishment of the Allergy and Asthma Medical Group and Research Center. Among many other advances, this institute was responsible for the development and popularization of the asthma inhalers we’re all familiar with today. These devices deliver bronchodilators in aerosol form directly into the lungs during an attack, which helps save a number of lives each year.

Another popular device for curbing the atmospheric triggers of asthma (i.e. pollen, dust, pet dander, bacteria, etc.) is an air purifier. Air purifiers work to remove these types of particles from the air and stop them from going into the bronchial tubes, thus reducing the chance for an asthma attack.

Air purifiers themselves have had an interesting development and history over the years, but the most important thing you should know here is that specific types have been made to help asthmatics. A specially formulated filter, called a HEPA filter, is used to collect and trap the most airborne particles that irritate the lungs. To learn more about this innovative device, take a look at our other article on how to pick the right air purifier for asthma for continuous relief.

In closing, our understanding of asthma, its prevention and treatment, has been expanding over the centuries. With the availability of modern scientific tools, the rate of progress has sped up enormously. With a little luck, we might see a breakthrough which makes a cure possible any day now.