Curious about the most painful diseases? While science has made amazing advances in the cases of many diseases such as certain cancers, diabetes, and HIV/AIDS, there are a lot of diseases that still kill people or significantly decrease their quality of life. Here are 25 most painful diseases that you definitely don’t want to catch.
Pneumonia is a lung infection that makes it very heard to breathe and may cause fluid build up in the lungs. Other symptoms include high fever, congestion, and a cough that pretty much makes it so you can’t do anything else and may even pee your pants a little. For normal healthy adults, Pneumonia will clear up at home in a few weeks (yes, weeks); however, for the very old, the very young, or those who have other issues such as asthma, it can be deadly.
Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is a bacterial infection cause by the bacterium Rickettsia rickettsii that’s transmitted by tick bites. (Wear bug repellent and check for ticks including scalp and ears, always.) Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, hallucinations, and high fever. Left untreated, it can make your kidneys shut down, cause your brain to swell, attack your central nervous system….It’s very treatable but will kill you if you don’t get treatment.
Eclampsia is the onset of seizures in a woman who is pregnant or has recently given birth. While it’s not very clear what causes Eclampsia, it’s always proceeded by Pre-Eclampsia, which is characterized by high blood pressure and protein in the urine. We know there are risk factors, such as a history of high blood pressure, or previous Pre E. It is treatable, but Pre E MUST be closely monitored, and sometimes the baby must be delivered early.
Chicken pox, first recorded around 1500 in Italy, is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which shows up as the much more painful shingles in adults. In children, it’s an itchy red rash all over the body accompanied by a fever and sore throat. While it is preventable by vaccine, the more the vaccine is studied, the more it’s being found that “booster” doses are needed; however, contracting chicken pox once generally gives lifelong immunity.
People as far back as Pharaohs in Ancient Egypt had heart attacks, and still today in the US, 1 in 4 people will die of heart disease. Get your yearly checkups, know your blood pressure and family history, and eat a vegetable now and again.
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Influenza or flu is a very common virus with many different strains, some being more deadly than others. Historically, the flu has killed thousands of people worldwide, and it still does, though those are often those who are immuno-compromised in some other way, very old, or very young. It is preventable by vaccine, depending on the year, since the vaccine is made of up strains the CDC assumes will be most common that particular flu season. If you have the flu, antivirals can help, but generally symptoms (fever, cough, chills, tiredness, headaches, stuffy nose) are treated until the illness runs it’s course.
Yellow Fever is a virus found in tropical regions (very rarely in the US) that is spread by mosquito. It is preventable by vaccine, but it is not treatable. It often resolves itself in a few days to a few weeks, and symptoms can be treated until the virus runs it’s course. Many people only have mild symptoms if any. However, of those who develop severe symptoms – severe headache, high fever, chills, nausea – 20%-50% may die.
Sepsis used to be known as “Blood Poisoning,” and that’s actually a really accurate description. Sepsis is what happens when bacteria and toxins get into the body, usually via a wound. Symptoms are high fever, high heart rate, and high respiratory rate. It MUST be treated by a doctor, or it will become septic shock and will kill you, sometimes after making your fingers and toes fall off (literally). If you ever have a wound, any wound, and you notice a red line moving towards your heart (up your arm, etc) GO TO THE ER. This is not a wait until tomorrow situation.
Encephalitis is inflammation of the brain and can be viral or bacterial in origin. Back in the day, it was sometimes known as sleeping sickness. Viral Encephalitis can be spread by insect bites. Other symptoms are similar to a flu and generally last 2-3 weeks, but it can be very dangerous, and severe cases can involve seizures, unsteady gait, light sensitivity, and muscle weakness. Both viral and bacterial Encephalitis can be treated by a doctor.
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease. It causes sores, swollen lymph nodes, and rashes. In latent stage Syphilis (10+ years after infection), it can spread to your internal organs and kill you. Luckily, it can be treated with antibiotics. In case you needed another reason to use condoms, this is it. Go to the doctor if you have weird sores on your mouth or private parts, and be careful what you do with people with weird sores.
Meningitis is a swelling in the lining of the brain. It can be caused by a virus, bacteria, fungus, parasites, lupus – so because the causes vary, the treatments available vary. There are vaccines for bacterial meningitis, but if left untreated, bacterial meningitis can cause death in a few hours. Most people do recover, but there can be permanent damage such a hearing loss and brain damage.
Gonorrhea is another sexually transmitted illness that’s easily preventable by using both common sense and protection. Gonorrhea can cause infections in the reproductive organs and the throat. A pregnant mother with the disease can pass it on to her child, and – like chlamydia – it can cause Pelvic Inflammatory Disease in women if left untreated, which can lead to infertility.
Typhoid still kills. It’s spread by coming into contact with the feces of an infected person or animal, so in countries without rigorous sanitation practices (including water), it’s still a problem. In fact, for people traveling to third world countries, the CDC strongly recommends getting vaccinated.
Arthritis is one of the earliest known diseases (they’ve found it in Egyptian mummies), and it’s inflammation of the joints that isn’t caused by any virus or bacteria. Pain, joint swelling, loss of mobility, and loss of use of the hands are all things that can result from arthritis. There’s a common misconception that it’s an “old person” disease, but this isn’t true. Younger people can experience it as well, though it does worsen with age. There’s no cure, but many treatments to manage pain and inflammation are available. It’s pretty common, and we’ve all heard about it, so sometimes we forget that arthritis is actually a big deal and can significantly decrease quality of life for those affected.
Rabies is a virus transmitted via the bite of an infected animal. (Don’t pet wild animals. Ever.) People all over the world still get rabies, even in the US. The virus attacks the central nervous system and eventually causes brain death. Onset of symptoms is generally like most other generic diseases – weakness, fever, headache – and then progresses to things like anxiety, insomnia, excess saliva production, and a fear of water. It *IS* treatable, but you MUST get medical attention. Wash any weird animal bites thoroughly with soap and water, and get your butt to the doctor or ER, and PLEASE, use common sense and have any pets vaccinated regularly.
Dysentery didn’t just kill people on the Oregon Trail; it’s still a serious issue in developing countries. Since it’s mostly spread via contaminated water and food, if you live in a country with clean and easily available water, be grateful! And then be a little worried because recent strains are showing antibiotic resistance.
Rickets is sadly still a common disease in developing countries. It’s actually a severe vitamin D deficiency. Without enough vitamin D, the body cannot process calcium and phosphorus, which in turn means enough calcium doesn’t get to the bones. It’s caused by malnutrition, absorption issues, or lack of sun exposure. Symptoms include slow growth, muscle weakness, malformed bones, restlessness, and for infants developmental delays and thinning of the skull. It can be treated with heavy doses of vitamin D.
The Bubonic Plague
The Bubonic Plague – yep, the one that killed like 1/3 of Europe in the 1300’s – is still something you can get! In the Southwestern US, the Plague is generally carried by Prairie Dogs and about 10 people a year get it. The Plague is caused by a bacterium called Yersinia pestis and is spread via contact with infected animals or, more commonly, fleas. It’s treatable with antibiotics, but left untreated you’re likely to die a horrible death, with high fever, weakness, chills, and swollen lymph nodes.
Diphtheria is a bacterial infection that makes it hard to breathe by producing a thick grey coating in the back of the throat, made up mostly of dead tissue. Yeah, gross. Other symptoms are high fever, weakness, and swollen lymph nodes in the neck. In 1921, there were over 200,000 cases of diphtheria in the US and over 15,000 deaths. It’s treatable with antibiotics and antitoxins.
Cholera literally makes you poop to death and can kill you within hours. Thankfully, it’s not generally an issue in developed countries as it’s mostly spread via contaminated water, and MOST people who get the disease have mild diarrhea and dehydration. Severe cases can kill within hours without IV fluids and antibiotics. There is an oral vaccine available.
A red rash that covers most of the body accompanied by high fever, Scarlet Fever is actually a bacterial infection that usually develops in people who already have strep throat (they’re caused by the same type of bacteria). A childhood illness affecting mostly those between the ages of five and fifteen, Scarlet Fever is no longer the serious illness it used to be due to antibiotic treatments now available. However, if left untreated, it can affect the internal organs.
Polio is still a thing, particularly in the Middle East/Africa. It’s transmitted through contact with an infected person or contaminated water or food. Most people infected with the polio virus don’t become sick and have no symptoms, but those who do actually get sick often experience paralysis to the point of death. There’s no treatment for the disease, just a preventative vaccine and treatment of symptoms for those who have it.
Once known as the ‘disease of kings’ and associated with rich food, Gout is actually a form of arthritis caused by too much uric acid in the blood stream. The first recorded cases were in Egypt in 2640 BC. It’s treatable with NSAID’s but chronic gout may require lifestyle changes. It’s literally one of the oldest diseases we know about – there have been dinosaur fossils found with evidence of gout.
Tuberculosis, which has also been known historically as consumption, Pott’s disease, and the White Plague, is a bacterial disease that primarily infects the respiratory system. The bacteria that causes TB has been found in relics in Egypt, India and China. It is treatable with antibiotics, but as with most diseases currently, antibiotic resistance may become a problem.
Leprosy is a disease caused by a specific bacteria that can take anywhere from 1-20 years to incubate and become active in the host’s system. Though it is highly treatable, it’s important to remember it’s not completely a thing of the past. Left untreated, it can affect the nervous system and also cause you to lose body parts. Your fingers can actually fall off.
Photos: 20. Leonid Mamchenkov via flickr, 19. anonymous, André Mazet tending people suffering from yellow fever in th Wellcome V0010539, CC BY 4.0, 18. nyphotographic.com via the blue diamond gallery CC by 3.0, 13.Otis Historical Archives Nat’l Museum of Health & Medicine, Typhoid carrier polluting food – a poster, CC BY 2.0, 12. James Heilman, MD, Rheumatoid Arthritis, CC BY-SA 3.0, 11. anonymous, A dog with rabies and a detail of its skull. Line engraving Wellcome V0010531, CC BY 4.0, 10. methodshop.com via flickr, 9. anonymous, Title page of F. Glisson, “A Treatise of the rickets’ WellcomeL0013830, CC BY 4.0, 5. Estreya at English Wikipedia |Permission=CC-BY-2.5; CC-BY-SA-2.5. Modified by Grook Da Oger, Scarlet fever 1.1, CC BY-SA 4.0, 1. anonymous, Tubercular leprosy on the hand and arm Wellcome L0074845, CC BY 4.0