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June 20, 1986

Susto: A Folk Illness

Author Affiliations

Harvard Medical School Boston

JAMA. 1986;255(23):3310-3311. doi:10.1001/jama.1986.03370230116046

Susto is a folk illness term that is widely applied in Latin America. It indicates a serious fright or startling experience that has caused the asustado to lose his vital essence and thereby fall ill.

The term is applied etiologically to a wide range of pediatric and adult problems. Among the latter, the sufferer is classically described as restless during sleep, listless, debilitated, depressed, and indifferent to food, dress, and personal hygiene. Susto is not culture bound in a strict sense, inasmuch as it is found among distinctive Hispanic and Amerindian groups, and very similar frightlike conditions have been described in India, Taiwan, and other nonwestern societies. Nonetheless, this folk term draws its particular meaning from the Hispanic tradition in Latin America.

For decades, anthropologists and physicians have described cases of susto and speculated on its causes and consequences. In fact, the literature on susto is probably more extensive than

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