Monday, July 7, 2014

The History of the Cough: What the Ancient Egyptians Did and Why It Works

Ancient Egyptian medicine sounds glamorous, but perhaps a bit archaic; however, their treatments often actually worked. Their ideas were pretty innovative for their time. By studying mummified Egyptian corpses and looking at medical journals recorded on papyrus, we can discern what remedies they used from many different diseases, and even the common cough.

Most Egyptians suffered during their short life spans. They often died from diseases, or from their physical condition weakening over the many contracted diseases they acquired. Diseases were spread by the close contact of people - households were contained as many as 20 people living in a tiny home. The intense, hot environment, and the presence of bugs, rats, and fleas only aiding in quickly spreading diseases.

That, combined with the fact that many cures were dangerous remedies in and of themselves, made for a generally low life expectancy and lives full of physical pain and abnormalities - it was no walk in the park.

But as the ancient Egyptians studied, they came up with new remedies, until they had a medical system set in place. In fact, their medical system came with the following: an oath (not unlike the Hippocratic one), literally thousands of medical texts (equipped with lists of cures, diseases, and symptoms), tools (scalpels, linen, and swabs), check-up procedures (pulse checks and interviews), and the much-needed and oft-used magic spells.

When magic spells couldn't cure the common cough (usually a respiratory problem caused by the sand), the ancient Egyptians used a mixture of herbs and honey - you could almost say it was the world’s first cough drop. The root cause of the cough wasn't known, but tuberculosis was common.

Egyptians also would roast a mouse to a cinder and grind it into a basin of milk. This was their cure for whooping cough. The mouse was a major ingredient in many remedies, but again - no one knows exactly way.

Common hibiscus was also used to treat coughs by placing extracts in the patients’ baths or in water used for steam inhalations. Raw garlic was given to asthmatics and to sufferers from bronchial-pulmonary complaints. Licorice was used to treat coughs and colds, since powdered licorice root is an effective expectorant. The sweet herb could also be combined with other herbs and used as a tea.

In our research, we could not find evidence of the Egyptians using menthol as an effective cure - but it was non-existent in ancient times. In the 21st century, menthol is a well-known organic compound that has been used in industries all over the world - including in the manufacturing of cough drops. Menthol is extracted from peppermint essential oil, and it’s where it derives its easily identifiable, pungent aroma.

While it wasn't available to the Egyptians, other cultures did use it in treating the symptoms of coughs, colds, and upper respiratory illnesses. Chewing the leaves will unlock the peppermint aroma, which also made it a good treatment for halitosis.

We don’t fry mice these days when we need to treat a cough, but we do utilize honey, tea, and cough drops, following in the footsteps of the Egyptians who used healthier means to potentially lengthen their life spans and soothe their sore throats.

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