What is Typhoid Fever and how is it different from typhus?
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Typhoid Fever

Person with red spots on their back
A person with typhoid rash (Iran)

October 2016 - Typhoid fever isn't the same thing as typhus at all. You catch typhus from being bit by lice that have bitten people with typhoid, and you catch typhoid from drinking water with traces of human poop in it. (You can't catch typhoid from animals.) The germs that cause typhoid are a kind of salmonella, which also causes food poisoning. We call this typhoid because some of the symptoms are similar to typhus, so it is typhus-ish, or typhoid.

It's hard to tell when typhoid got started, because the symptoms are pretty similar to dysentery and other diseases you get from drinking dirty water. At first you get a fever, a headache, and a cough, and sometimes a bloody nose. After a week, you get a very high fever, diarrhea, and sometimes a rash. Many people are delirious. Then in the third week, while most people start to get better, some people get internal bleeding or brain swelling or other problems. About one out of five people who got typhoid died of it, and about one in a hundred get better but keep the typhoid germs alive, and spread them when they touch food, like the famous Typhoid Mary.


Get your own microscope
to see germs!

Typhoid might be what caused the plague at Athens in 410 BC, and it might be what killed Alexander the Great in 323 BC. Abigail Adams also died of typhoid. Many Civil War soldiers died of typhoid - Louisa May Alcott caught typhoid when she was a Civil War nurse.

William Budd, in 1838, was the first doctor to realize that people caught typhoid from dirty water. By the late 1800s, the spread of cholera encouraged many cities around the world to build sewage systems and water systems, and having clean water to drink also helped to keep people from catching typhoid. By 1896 British scientists developed a vaccine against typhoid, and in the First World War many British soldiers were vaccinated. By 1908, as cities began to add chlorine to their drinking water to kill germs, typhoid became more rare. But in southern Africa, India, and south-east Asia, where many people have no clean drinking water, typhoid is still a common illness. It can be cured with antibiotics, but the germs are evolving to be resistant to more and more antibiotics.

Learn by doing: look at your own drinking water under a microscope
More about typhus
More about cholera
More about dysentery

Bibliography and further reading about typhoid:

Typhus
Malaria
Cholera
More about medicine
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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