October 21, 2013

Medicine in the Nineteenth Century: Deadly Diseases Part 2: The Croup

The Sick Child, 1886
Arturo Michelena, courtesy of Wiki Commons
Public domain

What does frizzy hair, runny mascara and a clammy damp uniform have to do with the croup? 

I was astonished to read that the croup was a deadly childhood disease in the nineteenth century. Today, the illness is not considered serious and is usually treated at home.  Known medically as laryngotracheobronchitis, the croup is an infection of the upper airway which obstructs breathing and causes a characteristic barking cough (sounds like a seal).  Caused by a virus, usually the parainfluenza virus, the illness most commonly strikes children 6 months to 5-6 years of age.  Treated with oral or inhaled steroids or a tracheotomy in severe cases, the disease is rarely fatal today.  But in the late nineteenth century, almost three per cent of childhood deaths were attributed to this illness.

As I was researching this topic, I discovered that the standard treatment for hospitalized children with the croup back in the 1960's was a steam tent (a plastic tent over the crib also known as a croupette) or a steam room.  Now here is where the frizzy hair comes in.  Back in the early seventies I was training to be a medical technologist.  One of my jobs during the year of internship was to draw blood from the children in the "steam rooms".  Aha! As I schlepped in and out of these rooms with the croupy kiddies, my carefully coiffed hair turned to a limp lump of frizz, my expertly applied dime store mascara drizzled down my cheeks and my pressed and starched uni turned to a damp, wrinkled clammy mess. And here's the kicker: The steam rooms and steam tents were subsequently proven to be ineffective!

For references and additional reading see the Extras section.

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