Sweating sickness was a mysterious disease that struck England during the Tudor reign. The first epidemic took place in 1485, with the final one in 1551. Here’s more…
It was on 22nd August 1485 that Henry VII ascended the English throne when the Wars of the Roses was brought to an end by the Battle of Bosworth. Soon after, a peculiar new illness erupted amongst the soldiers that had survived the battle and had come back to England with their new king. The disease was highly infectious, causing rapid fatality, as it grew into an epidemic. It came to be known as sweating sickness, the Latin name being ‘sudor anglicus’, or just ‘English sweate’. It caused great misery and panic, before it suddenly disappeared as mysteriously as it had come with the winter setting in that year. It came back again in 1508, and then in 1517, and again in 1528, and finally in 1551, after which, it simply disappeared again with winter setting in, never to come back again.
Sweating sickness was unique, in the sense that, apart from striking poor people, it also took the lives of the rich, such as the royalty, aristocracy, and rich merchants. Most infectious diseases in those days, such as the plague, used to affect and kill mainly the poor, leaving the rich comparatively unscathed. Also, it struck mainly males, particularly those between 15 – 49 years of age. The people who were infected with sweating sickness were killed very rapidly. For example, a person could be quite healthy one day, become short of breath (one of the symptoms) the next day, and be dead on the following day. In other words, the onset of the symptoms was sudden and dramatic, with the affected person often dying within hours. The exact cause still remains largely a mystery.
Exactly what was the cause has never been proved conclusively. All that is certain is that it was neither typhus nor plague, because the victims of the disease did not get the rash that was characteristic of typhus, nor the boils that occurred with plague. However, recently, a few physicians think that they have found the cause. They say that sudor anglicus may have been an early form of a disease that had made news recently―the Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome―which struck parts of America in 1993, during the summer season.
The parallels between the two diseases are remarkable. First of all, the rapid course of a Hantavirus attack. It begins with a headache, then shortness of breath occurs soon after, and within a few hours, the patient needs to be on a respirator. Secondly, the people afflicted also become breathless, and their lungs fill with fluid.
In addition, another striking similarity is the fact that both diseases occur during the summer season, usually in rural areas, which makes scientists think that a rapidly breeding rodent may be the carrier, with the deer mouse having been identified as the culprit. Also, sweating sickness generally killed healthy adults, and so does the Hantavirus, while flu viruses generally affect the elderly the most.
Symptoms of Sweating Sickness
According to the description of John Caius and other physicians of those times, the symptoms of sweating sickness were: The onset of the disease was sudden, with the affected person experiencing a sense of dread. Later, cold shivers set in, which were quite violent, acute pains in the limbs, shoulders and neck, headache, giddiness, and a feeling of extreme exhaustion. Following the cold stage, which could last from ½ an hour to 3 hours, came the hot stage, which caused the characteristic profuse sweating, from which the disease gets its name. Along with the sweating, or after it had finished, came a feeling of heat, extreme thirst, heightened pulse, delirium, headache, and excruciating breathlessness. Heart palpitations and pain also often occurred. However, there were no eruptions on the skin. At the end stages, the affected person either collapsed out of sheer exhaustion or there was an overpowering urge to sleep, which was believed to be fatal if the person succumbed to it. Also, one did not become immune to the sickness after one attack, and there were cases of people suffering a number of attacks, before finally succumbing to the disease.
Although the disease did not occur again in England after the epidemic of 1578, a similar ailment, which was called Picardy sweat, did occur in France between 1718 and 1861. However, this disease was not as fatal, and there was a rash that accompanied it, which was not the case with the English sweating sickness.
Nevertheless, there are certain features of the outbreaks of the Hantavirus which do not correspond with sweating sickness. For instance, while sweating sickness was transmitted from human to human contact, the Hantavirus is not. Hence, even though the two diseases do seem to share many similarities, medical science is not completely sure whether they are indeed the same.