What disease is referred to by the name "consumption"?

My colleague Mark Johnson asks, "I recently saw a program about people in the 1800ís and it mentioned that they died of consumption. My question is, what is that? Is it some disease unto itself or is it slang for an already named disease. And how come you donít hear about it anymore? Has modern science rid it from the face of the earth?"

Well, with a name like consumption, you might expect some malady of excess; something, say, that mrlucky is suffering from as he gorges his way through middle age. In point of fact though, the opposite is true. Consumption is a formerly popular name for one of the great scourges of mankind: tuberculosis.

Specifically, consumption is a vividly descriptive name for the spreading process of the disease as it occurs in adults. From the Encyclopaedia Brittanica we learn:

the (tuberculosis) bacillus spreads slowly and widely in the lungs and, instead of causing a hard, calcified nodule, forms large cheesy (caseous) masses that break down the respiratory tissues and form cavities in the lungs. The disease process eats its way into the bronchi, or air passages, and the tubercle bacilli can then be coughed or breathed out, making the patient infectious. A blood vessel can be eroded by the advancing disease and then the patient, with great alarm, coughs up bright red blood.

The pulmonary system is consumed by the disease. Ergo, the name. You donít hear tuberculosis referred to this way much anymore, although the Time Magazine bookshelf Medical Reference Library , circa 1983, includes consumption as an alternate name for tuberculosis.

Screening programs and vaccines have radically reduced the occurrence of TB, and the drug isoniazid, among others, is effective in treatment, but consumption has not by any means been vanquished.

A strain of bovine tuberculosis can be spread by the consumption of raw milk. Pasteurization and the raising of tb-free herds has quashed this variant in many countries.

As with most pernicious maladies, however, the fight against tuberculosis, though it is being won, is pretty much a never-ending one.

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