History Of Sweating Sickness: What Are Its Causes And Symptoms?

The sweating sickness was one of the most dreaded fatal diseases of the Tudor period; it first reared its ugly head in 1485, struck with great savagery and left many dead. From 1485 to 1507, there was a less extensive epidemic, and the disease, in England, lay almost latent.

In 1517 the feared disease resurfaced once again, and this time it caused a deadly epidemic.

In Oxford and Cambridge the disease was fatal and in places, it claimed half of the population. In 1528, the disease returned with full force, broke out in London and spread over entire England.

The sweating sickness was an enigmatic and very virulent disease which afflicted England and later Europe, in a series of epidemics that first started in 1485. The last outbreak occurred in 1551, after which the sickness disappeared. The commencement of the symptoms was sudden and dramatic, with death occurring in a few hours.

What Caused The Sweating Sickness?

The precise cause of sweating sickness is not known, however, it’s been postulated that an unknown species of hanta virus pulmonary syndrome was accountable.

It gained infamy because its victims were killed within 24 hours by sweating to death. Experts say that poor sanitation and contaminated water which may have hidden the source of infection was the etiological factor.

The initial occurrence at the end of the ‘wars of the roses’ points towards the fact that the infection may have been transferred by the French mercenaries from France, whom Henry VII used to attain the throne of England.

The ‘relapsing fever’ has also been proposed as a likely cause. Noting a marked symptom overlap with the hanta virus pulmonary syndrome, a host of experts suggested that an unknown hanta virus was the cause of the disease. This virus is transmitted by certain mice, rats, and voles, which themselves never manifest any signs of the disease, and humans get infected by inhaling aerosolized rodent feces or urine.

The condition was described in detail by the physician John Caius, when there occurred an episode of the sweating sickness. His account is the chief historical source of knowledge of this mysterious sickness.

Signs And Symptoms Of Sweating Sickness

The symptoms and signs as described by Dr. John Caius and others were:

  • The disease started abruptly and suddenly, with a feeling of apprehension; followed by violent shivering, dizziness, headache and severe pain in the legs, neck, and shoulders with extreme weakness.
  • After the cold stage of the fever, which lasted from ½ hour to 3 hours, the heat stage as well as the sweating stage commenced.
  • The characteristic sweat started very suddenly without any apparent cause. Accompanying the sweat there was excessive heat, rapid pulse, delirium, agonizing headache, and undue thirst.
  • Pain in the heart and palpitation were frequently seen too.
  • In the final stages of the disease, there was complete weariness and breakdown, with an alluring urge to go to sleep, which Caius said would be the cause of the death if the patient was allowed to give way to it.
  • Also, an attack did not provide any kind of immunity and some suffered numerous episodes before succumbing to it.
  • The deadly disease was never seen in England again after 1578.

Sweating Sickness Treatment

No treatment really worked to manage the symptoms or prevent a death of the individual. So it looks like the sweating sickness is another of the Tudor mysteries which will continue to puzzle and intrigue us for years to come.

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