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January 2017

The Myth of Erysipelas—Fire, Water, and Blood

Author Affiliations
  • 1Department of General Medicine, National University Hospital, Singapore
JAMA Dermatol. 2017;153(1):48. doi:10.1001/jamadermatol.2016.0101

Erysipelas, a superficial variant of cellulitis, is characterized as affecting the face, but now most commonly affects the lower limbs. St Anthony, an Egyptian monk, was thought to possess the abilities to both cure and inflict it.

Interestingly, various sources1 believe erysipelas to be distinct from its eponym. In the Middle Ages, erysipelas and ergotism were regarded as one and the same. Then, erysipelas was erroneously believed to have been caused by the ingestion of the fungus Claviceps purpurea containing ergot alkaloids found in contaminated rye. However, in the first century bc, the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius referred to outbreaks of erysipelas as ignis sucer meaning “holy fire,” much like the burning sensation that accompanied the infection.1