Every April is STD Awareness Month. In our modern world, we are used to effective treatments for such infections that we can receive quickly to get back to health. Antivirals help with things like genital herpes and antibiotics are able to treat chlamydia and gonorrhea. However, spare a thought for the poor individuals of the past who were subject to some very unusual and bizarre medical treatments for the sexually transmitted diseases they encountered. Although historical documents can be difficult to interpret, it does seem that the diseases suffered by our ancestors are the same as those experienced today.
Here are some of those historical treatments:
Sandal Oil & Cow Horn – Ancient manuscripts are tough to interpret whether they were talking about treatments for STDs we recognise today or some other illness but there is evidence to suggest the treatments referred to in ancient Egyptian medical papyri do refer to illnesses contracted through sexual contact. As well as incantations and spells, Egyptians did try practical methods such as sandal oil to ease symptoms of a urinary infection. Mixtures of herbs, garlic and cow horn powder were also used as salves and ointments to treat genital discharges.
Weights & Hot Iron – The ancient Romans and Greeks were well aware of the dangers of STDs, especially when visiting sex workers. There was a routine practice of douching genitals in special oils but there were more bizarre treatments. One famous physician thought that those suffering from gonorrhea were weak and should have iron weights attached to their body to help their recovery! Herpes was a common infection and Romans would often cauterize ulcers or rashes with hot iron!
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Mercury – Before humans realised that mercury is extremely poisonous, they were using it a lot – from make-up to treatments for syphilis. There is evidence of its use in ancient China as well across Europe for many centuries as advised by both physicians and armies. Holy wood was a plant that was seen as almost magical for the treatment of many illnesses. This flowering tree from the West Indies was brought over to Eruope in the 1500s and gained an almost mythical reputation. There is no evidence that it cured anything other than slight cases of constipation!
Leeches – During the 13th century in Italy, a common practice recommended by doctors was for leeches to be attached to those suffering from an STD or to have urethral irrigation carried out, no doubt with an unsterilised piece of equipment and no pain relief!
Medieval England – Some treatments included covering a patient with strips of cloth dipped in lead and these were known as ‘sweating cloths’. Covering anyone in lead is not going to do anything beneficial for their health!