In addition to being devastating to the landscape and population, World War I was devastating to the human body. Yes, there were the horrific wounds, but there were also diseases. These diseases were rarely diagnosed in the civilian population and, therefore, became known as “trench diseases.”
Type of infection: Bacterial, transmitted by lice
Symptoms: Abnormal sensitivity in the shins, fever, headache, muscle soreness, eye pain
Duration: Five days, but could be reoccurring
Course of the illness: Muscle soreness continues even after fever breaks
Prognosis: Rarely fatal, but too high of a fever can lead to heart damage
Prevention: Cleanliness and eliminating the lice infestation, which is next to impossible in the trenches
Type of infection: Fungal
Symptoms: Feet turn red then blue; swelling, blisters; area stinks like decay
Duration: Two to six weeks followed by months of recovery
Course of the illness: In advanced cases, leads to gangrene and amputations
Prognosis: Varies, depending on severity
Prevention: Improved drainage in trenches, waterproof footwear, frequently changing into dry socks
Trench foot was a disease well known in the medical field. It had been plaguing soldiers for centuries, but it became especially problematic in the early months of the Great War when it affected tens of thousands.
“Towards [sic] the end of WWI, the armies developed techniques for preventing Trench Foot,” blogger Perry Walters says on the Kansas World War One Centennial Committee website. “First, they provided an elevated wooden floor in the bottom of the trenches. They enhanced the trench drainage systems, and they also developed a buddy system where each soldier was responsible for his buddy’s feet being dry and clean.”
Armies also instituted regular foot inspections.
Type of infection: Bacterial
Symptoms: Swelling of the gums as well as ulcers on the gums, fever, bleeding, bad breath
Duration: If not properly treated, can spread beyond the gums and infect the jawbone, lips and cheeks
Course of the illness: Caused by the bacteria normally present in the mouth growing out of control
Prognosis: Depends on severity of the infection because gum tissue is destroyed. Teeth may fall out.
Prevention: Good oral hygiene, proper nutrition, not smoking, controlling stress
Trench mouth is the gingivitis case from hell. It is painful and cannot be reversed (true gingivitis can). During the war, it became prevalent because some soldiers stopped their oral hygiene routines and many ate sugary treats from home.
“In the horrendous conditions amidst the mud and carnage of battle, strategies of attrition involved troops in long stalemates, with gun care more of a priority than gum care,” the European Federation of Periodontology says.
Today, the disease can be treated with antibiotics, but during the 1910s it was treated with hydrogen peroxide.
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Updated: 19 October 2020
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