Ancient Remedies, Modern Treatments
The written asthma treatment history is as old as the written history of asthma itself. The Georg Ebers Papyrus, an ancient Egyptian account of over 700 medical conditions and treatments written in hieroglyphics which dates to approximately 1550 BC and was discovered in Egypt in the 1870s, recommends that asthma sufferers heat a mixture of herbs on a brick and then inhale the fumes. Even more interestingly, the historical Chinese remedy for asthma has striking similarities to medications still in use today.
Avoidance of Environmental Allergens
The first connection between asthma and environmental allergens was noted by the Italian physician Bernardino Ramazzini in the 17th century when he noted that organic dust could cause asthma. Sir Thomas Granger Stewart and George Alexander Gibson, writing in Stedman's "Twentieth Century Practice" published in 1896, recommended that asthma sufferers stay away from "pollen or flowers ... or other specific irritants." Although modern medicine has become much better at identifying what specific allergens may trigger an individual's asthma, the recommendation remains the same to this day: stay away from environmental allergens that trigger your asthma.
The Chinese have been treating asthma sufferers with herbs containing ephedrine for centuries, supplying them with a way to inhale bronchodilating beta-agonists without fully understanding the underlying mechanism. Similar treatments were first introduced to Western medicine in the early 1900s when physicians began treating asthma patients who wouldn't respond to normal treatments with injections of adrenaline. Ephedrine itself first began to be used in Western medicine in 1926, and by the 1950s physicians were using inhalers that provided metered doses or epinephrine and isoproterenol to treat asthma. These inhalers are still marketed today, but used only infrequently, as there are other inhaler combinations that cause fewer side effects.
Corticosteroids were first put into general medical use in the 1940s. By the 1950s, physicians began to realize that they were effective in the treatment of asthma. Corticosteroids treat asthma by limiting the body's inflammatory response, preventing the bronchi from constricting. By the 1970s, the use of systemic corticosteroids was standard medical practice for patients with asthma. Corticosteroids remain one of the mainstays of asthma treatment today, although there is serious consideration paid to balancing the benefits of corticosteroid treatment against the serious negative side effects of long-term steroid treatment.