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Old-Time Terms for Illnesses / Diseases

tuberculosisThe medical profession has changed greatly over the last 200 years. Doctors’ knowledge of the human body and diseases has increased and that includes changes to the names for certain medical conditions and diseases. So when you see a term for an illness an ancestor suffered or died from, you do need some explanation of what that old-time term might be more commonly referred today. This type of information is also great for your own medical history, since some conditions can be inherited.

One term I frequently found listed on death records was ‘dropsy’. It actually refers to excessive swelling or edema of fluid around the heart and even the brain. It is today known as congestive heart failure.

Another was ‘bilious fever’ which was listed many times for those who died in the 1800s. It refers to any gastric illness, especially related to the liver, intestines, gall bladder or what was called your ‘innards’.

If an ancestor had ‘variola’ that meant they had a very mild case of the smallpox disease. Whereas if it was the more highly contagious and deadly form of smallpox, the relative might have been in a ‘pest house’, an isolated location for those suffering from what was also called the plague or ‘black death’. If you come across the term ‘pest house’ of where an ancestor lived or died, that will provide some major clues that they had to be isolated or quarantined.

Then there was the ‘grippe’ which meant you had influenza (the flu). This could range from a mild case to severe and fatal.

An unusual old-time term for typhus or typhoid fever was ‘jail fever’ or ‘bilious fever’ because it tended to spread in locations, like prisons, where any people were confined to a small space that had unsanitary conditions. Other locations included Army camps, ships, poor houses or hospitals.

Seeing the term ‘king’s evil’ or ‘consumption’, or ‘wasting’, that would refer to tuberculosis, a lung disease. It was so common that in 1900 generally one in every seven people died from tuberculosis (TB). The terrifying malaria disease was also known as as ‘ague’, ‘shakes’ or ‘chill blains’. Then ‘dysentery’ would listed as a cause of death if someone had cholera, a infection of the bowel.

Many children died of ‘putrid fever’ which was diphtheria, a contagious disease of the throat.

Since women gave birth at home, infections of one type of another were common during childbirth. The old-time terms for puerperal fever was ‘metritis’ or ‘child bed fever’. If the mother suffered from a blood clot after giving birth it was called ‘milk leg’. If she lost a good deal of blood or hemorrhaging, she died from the ‘fits’.

Having ‘bright’s disease’ meant the person had kidney failure. If someone had the ‘vapors’ they had continued to drink too much or too strong of alcohol. ‘Softening of the brain’ decades ago was the term for those who had dementia or Alzheimer’s that is known today.

Find any other term you are not familiar with, do some research to learn more about the illness.

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