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Sharp Health News

Treating infection, then and now

Dec. 3, 2015

Bloodletting
Washington on his Deathbed by Junius Brutus Stearns depicts the final hours of Washington's life, during which a bloodletter removed 80 ounces of the president's blood, more than 40 percent of an adult's blood volume. Medical historians believe this procedure contributed to the president's death after a brief illness.


When you visit the doctor for an infection, you may undergo testing and leave with a prescription for antibiotics. Flash back a few hundred years before the advent of modern medicine, and you might leave the same appointment with deep cuts to your body and a few less pints of blood - as well as the same problem you came in with.

Luckily, your doctor won't attempt this painful procedure on you today. But why did a practice used for thousands of years fade into such distant memory that most people have never heard of it?

Until the mid-19th century, bloodletting - the withdrawal of blood from a patient to cure or prevent disease and illness - was the treatment of choice for most medical issues. A bloodletter treated President George Washington in the hours before he died. In fact, many historians speculate that this procedure, during which 80 ounces of blood were removed, contributed to Washington's death after a throat ailment.

Patients with almost any condition, from headache to gout, epilepsy or an infection, were pierced in the veins of their arm or neck with a fixed blade and "bled" until the doctor deemed the treatment complete. Leeches were also used for bloodletting in place of sharp instruments.

Several studies conducted in the 1800s concluded that bloodletting didn't actually do much to heal any condition and the practice gradually faded away. But were our medical predecessors on the right track?

According to Dr. Fadi Haddad, an infectious disease specialist affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital, there is no legitimacy to the bloodletting tradition used to treat infections. The blood itself is highly contagious, which can spread disease - especially in viral infections such as HIV, hepatitis B and C, and Ebola. This makes bloodletting a way to spread disease, not control it.

These days, infectious disease doctors use clinical judgment and evidence-based medicine to treat patients. Cutting-edge laboratory tests and imaging studies make it possible to reach the right diagnosis and decide on proper treatment.

"Today, infections are treated with various medications, according to what is causing it - whether viral, bacterial, parasitic or fungal," Dr. Haddad explains. "Treatment varies for each patient, depending on age, existing conditions and the severity of the disease. For example, IV antibiotics are recommended to treat bloodstream infection, while oral antibiotics can treat mild skin or soft tissue infections."

There are still some methods used to treat infections without the use of anti-infective medications. One example is the use of diets rich in probiotics to treat a gastrointestinal infection called Clostridium difficile, also known as C. diff.

If you think you have an infection, it is best to contact your primary care doctor, or seek referral to an infectious disease doctor if your condition is more complicated. They can help diagnose and treat your condition - and you won't have to fear sharp tools or involuntarily "donate" several pints of blood.

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