What Was Consumption Sickness?

Doctors and other health practitioners as far back as Hippocrates in 460 B.C. used the term “consumption” for the condition known in modern times as pulmonary tuberculosis, or TB, according to MedicineNet. Hippocrates used the word “phtisis,” which translates to “consumption,” to describe TB, a disease that was widespread at the time and nearly always fatal. The disease literally consumed those who contracted it.

The slow-growing bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis causes pulmonary TB, a contagious disease that spreads through the air when someone infected breathes, coughs or laughs, notes WebMD. In its active state, TB develops gradually over a period of weeks or even months, often causing a cough that lasts for more than two weeks and produces thick, cloudy or bloody mucus. Other symptoms include fatigue, weakness, night sweats, chills and fever. Unexplained weight loss, loss of appetite, chest pain and shortness of breath are also hallmarks of the disease.

TB can also lie latent in the body, notes WebMD. A person with latent TB has the bacteria in his body, but the body’s immune system suppresses it, keeping it from becoming active. People with latent TB do not experience TB symptoms, and they do not pass the disease to others. However, latent TB can become active.