View as List Can You Decode These Old Medical Terms?

  • Male Patient Visiting Doctor's Office With Back Ache?>

    There was a time when millions of people around the world suffered from lumbago, dropsy, the grippe, and consumption. Actually, they still do. The diseases remain. Only their names have changed. Check out your knowledge of old-fashioned complaints—and what they’re called today.

  • 1

    Dropsy

    Physiotherapist controlling patients foot?>

    Once widely used, the word dropsy refers to swelling caused by the accumulation of fluid. Today doctors call it edema. There are many causes of edema. One of the most serious is heart failure. When the heart can’t pump strongly enough, blood pools in certain parts of the body. Fluid leaks out into nearby tissue. Fortunately, pills called diuretics can often help reduce edema.

  • 2

    Chilblains

    Woman holding a mug?>

    Your great grandma might have complained about chilblains if her hands or feet became inflamed after being out in the cold. Today the more common term for this rare condition is perniosis. Symptoms include itching, redness, swelling, and even blisters. No one knows why some people develop the condition. Smoking is a risk factor. Luckily you can easily avoid trouble by wearing gloves in cold, damp weather. Hand lotion can ease the discomfort.

  • 3

    Consumption

    Doctor giving an injection to a patient..toned image?>

    The poet John Keats died of consumption. So did the fictional heroine of La Boheme. Over the years, the disease has had many memorable names, including phthisis, scrofula, Pott’s disease, and the white plague. Today we call it tuberculosis, or TB. TB remains a serious disease, especially in poorer countries. New strains have emerged that resist most antibiotics.

  • 4

    Bone shave

    Office Syndrome: Lumbago?>

    This colorful term describes the excruciating pain of what is now called sciatica. The classic symptoms are pain or tingling, usually starting in your lower back and spreading down through one leg. Sciatica occurs when the sciatic nerve running through the spine becomes inflamed. Most cases go away on their own. Persistent sciatica may require surgery.

  • 5

    Lumbago

    Physical Therapy: Patient with backache?>

    The word derives from lumbar, the lower part of the back. Lumbago refers to any kind of back pain. Today we call it chronic low back pain. There are many causes, from simple muscle sprains to deteriorating disks in the spine. Low back pain remains one of the most common complaints that bring people to the doctor’s office. 

  • 6

    Catarrh

    Woman blowing her nose?>

    This antiquated term describes nasal congestion and a runny nose. Today we’re more likely to say we have a cold. The term "cold" is itself a misnomer. Colds aren’t caused by being cold or damp. They’re caused by a variety of viruses that circulate year-round. The term “summer catarrh” once described what we now call hay fever. That’s also a misnomer. Hay fever doesn’t involve a fever and isn’t caused exclusively by hay. It’s an allergic reaction to a wide array of pollens and irritants that float in the air.

  • 7

    Infantile paralysis

    Child vaccination?>

    Once a dreaded scourge of childhood, this disease has been largely vanquished around the world. Its modern name: polio. Polio is caused by a virus that attacks nerve cells. As recently as the 1950s, polio was a fact of life for children. Some victims ended up in so-called “iron lungs,” fighting for breath, or crippled for life. The polio vaccine protects against the virus, and since 1988 the number of cases worldwide has declined 99 percent. 

  • 8

    Falling sickness

    Hands with pills?>

    This descriptive term refers to what is now called epilepsy, a group of brain disorders that cause seizures, sometimes causing people to fall down. The word epilepsy comes from an ancient Greek word meaning “to seize, possess, or afflict.” In many causes, the underlying cause of epilepsy remains a mystery. Fortunately, medication can help lower the risk of seizures.

  • 9

    Grippe

    Sad woman with tissue and medicines lying on bed?>

    Epidemics of the grippe used to occur every year. Today we call the disease influenza. Flu remains an annual scourge. Just when our immune systems have become resistant to one strain, another emerges. Annual flu vaccines are engineered to protect against the most likely circulating strains.

  • 10

    Hydrophobia

    Veterinary surgeon is giving the vaccine to German Shepherd?>

    The word hydrophobia literally means “fear of water.” It describes one of the classic symptoms of what is now called rabies. Rabies virus invades the brain, causing inflammation. Victims often experience painful spasms of the throat when they try to drink water. Rabies has been eliminated in much of the world, thanks to mandatory rabies vaccines for dogs. Yet the disease still kills tens of thousands of people a year worldwide, mostly in poorer countries.

  • 11

    Quinsy

    Young woman with sore throat?>

    This whimsical-sounding word derives from words meaning “sore throat” and “to strangle.” It refers to what is now called peritonsillar abscess, a rare and potentially serious complication of tonsillitis.

  • 12

    Lockjaw

    Older man with painful jaw?>

    Like many outdated terms, this one describes a symptom: a severe spasm that locks up the jaw muscles. The cause: what we now call tetanus. Spread by bacteria commonly found in soil, tetanus affects the nervous system. In some cases, it causes muscle spasms so severe that they fracture bones. Most of us are protected by the tetanus vaccine, a combination shot that also protects against pertussis and diphtheria.