It's Greek to Me: A History of Asthma

It's Greek to Me: A History of Asthma

Centuries ago, great minds of the ancient world were very familiar with asthma. They just didn’t understand its cause. The word “asthma” is actually Greek and means “short of breath." leaving site icon The all-purpose moniker referred to anyone who suffered from breathlessness.

It took centuries – the late 19th century, to be exact – for doctor and asthma sufferer, Henry Hyde Salter, leaving site icon to explain the disease. Salter noted that “airways narrow due to contraction of their smooth muscle” during an asthma attack. What did he recommend to ease asthma symptoms? Black coffee. 

Advances in medicine eventually led to better understanding of asthma’s causes and treatments. In the 1890s, people connected the dots between asthma and  polluted city air. Sufferers often left the urban areas and trekked to the seaside, mountains and countryside for relief.

Later, pollen was tagged as a trigger for modern-day allergy sufferers. Air conditioning and sealed, energy-efficient buildings brought greater exposure to dust mites, mold, tobacco smoke and other allergens.

How was asthma first treated?

Imagine having asthma and being told your symptoms and attacks were all in your head. In the early 20th century, asthma was seen as a psychosomatic disease, not a medical condition. Psychoanalysis and other “talking cures” were common treatments through the 1950s. At the time, experts thought asthma sufferers should even be treated for depression.

A breakthrough came in the 1960s when asthma was finally recognized as a physical condition. Experts declared it an inflammatory disease. New, anti-inflammatory medications started to be used to treat it.

Today, medication plays a key role in treating asthma. There are two main types of asthma medication – anti-inflammatories and bronchodilators. Many people with asthma take both types. 

Another big discovery!

Now we know genetics also plays a role in asthma. Doctors began to see that asthma runs in families. Recent studies confirm asthma goes beyond health habits and living spaces. A number of genes linked to asthma have been identified. leaving site icon Even so, researchers believe environment is still a big factor. 

Experts believe babies exposed to irritants such as dust mites and secondhand smoke have a higher risk for asthma. Studies also show that when babies born with “asthma genes” are exposed to these irritants early, it can lead to a worse case of the disease. 

The most recent research shows just how complex asthma is. Many experts now consider asthma as a collection of several problems that share the same symptoms. It’s not just one condition.  

Studying genetic links, environmental factors, new technologies and research are all helping in the discovery of better and more effective treatments. Because asthma is a syndrome, not just a disease, it may be that the best way to treat it is with multiple types of therapies. 

To learn more about asthma and the “Taking on Asthma” initiative, visit our website.

Sources: A Brief History of Asthma and Its Mechanisms to Modern Concepts of Disease Pathogenesis, leaving site icon National of Bioinformatics, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, 2010; Asthma Nervosa: Old Concept, New Insights, leaving site icon European Respiratory Journal, 2011; Asthma, leaving site icon Mayo Clinic, 2021; Identifying and Treating Asthma in Babies, leaving site icon Healthline, 2017; Genetics and Asthma, leaving site icon World Health Organization; Is Asthma Genetic, leaving site icon Healthline, 2021.

Originally published 6/6/2016; Revised 2018, 2021