During the American Civil War, what medicine did they have and use? And what diseases did they have?

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brettd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Infections and diseases were much more deadly than battle in the Civil War, and claimed more lives.  Veterans wrote about a "camp cough" that would happen every morning when the army arose.  Knowledge about germs and sanitation and how disease was spread was limited at the time, which meant that often little was done to prevent or contain epidemics of Typhus, lockjaw, or fevers.  Operating conditions were horrible, with no sanitation of saws in between amputations, little training of the doctors and surgeons, and very limited amounts of painkillers.

Nurses provided cold and hot compresses, cleaned wounds of debris with alcohol, and used alcohol to anesthetize their patients.  In the heat of battlefield surgery, there wasn't time for that, as the limbs piled up and volunteers held down the wounded while their injured limbs and shattered bones were cut away.

Dorothea Dix, the early 1800's reformer, improved sanitation greatly during the war for Union hospitals, mostly just because she was a clean freak, but people noticed that survival rates in her hospitals went up.

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bullgatortail | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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Although battlefield deaths during the American Civil War were heavy, for every soldier killed in action, two died of disease. The greatest killers were

  • Diarrhea
  • Dysentery
  • Typhoid Fever
  • Pneumonia

Other diseases suffered regulary included measles, smallpox, malaria, camp itch (lice and mosquitos).

Doctors used opium for bowel problems as well as a mixture of mercury and chalk, known as the "blue mass." For scurvy, fresh vegetables were prescribed. Opium (as well as quinine or mustard plasters) were used for respiratory problems. Quinine was used to treat malaria. Poke-root was often used to relieve itching. Whiskey and other alcohol was often used to reduce pain. 

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