After my pre-Christmas flu, I coughed for a couple of weeks. Last night, I started coughing again. Luckily, even if this is bronchitis (which I'm sure it's not), there are treatments. Antibiotics have saved millions of lives. Vaccines have saved more millions. Sanitation has saved even more.
Yes, people still die of pneumonia and bronchitis, but the vast majority of people get treatment and survive. The first factor is general healthiness: we tend to have enough to eat and heat our houses in winter with things that don't cause a bunch of smoke indoors. In fact, when someone dies of it, it's even more of a tragedy nowadays. In about 1990, Jim Henson (the Muppet guy) died of walking pneumonia because he could still function and didn't get treatment until it was too late.
But back in the day, for most of the history and pre-history of humans, a lung infection was a big, big deal. Lung fever could strike and you were down for days, weeks, or months. You might end up permanently weakened. Or dead. Let's not forget dead.
I wonder, though about lung complaints as dramatic devices. In Sense and Sensibility, Marianne Dashwood goes walking in the rain and almost dies. Colonel Brandon brings her home and stays as close as he can, proving he was the right man all along, even though he's old and boring. (OMG, was that movie really over 20 years ago?) In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Bennett gets caught in the rain and catches the flu or something, so Lizzie rushes to her side to care for her. (And double OMG, it means the Colin Firth P&P was also over 20 years ago)
It's almost like Jane Austen thought rain caused the flu. But pneumonia was serious back then, without antibiotics and reliable x-rays.
Then we get to consumption/tuberculosis. What's that opera? La Traviata. (Based on a play by Alexandre Dumas, fils) The courtesan heroine is dying of consumption (and therefore can't even breathe) and belting out arias. And I was going to say something about Rent, but quickly found that, oh yeah, it's based on La Boheme, which also has the consumptive heroine belting out arias. At least in Rent, she doesn't quite die of AIDS.
Nowadays, asthma and allergies are on the rise, they keep telling us. Yes, there are more people living with them. But my theory is that in the old days, people died of them as children. A kid couldn't breathe and they keeled over. Another kid ate some eggs or nuts and couldn't breathe and keeled over. Someone could barely breathe due to pollen or mold or smoke and was always weak and wasted away.
And tuberculosis still exists, though it is generally treatable. People without adequate health care, including people in the developing world and those in the US and other first world nations who have fallen through the cracks, still get very sick and die. And the scourge of antibiotic-resistant bacteria makes this happen even more often.
SO ANYWAY, I've been thinking of writing a hero or heroine with asthma. I'm also thinking about writing in a different time period, since 17th century France just isn't catching on. I'm thinking French Revolution. Maybe spies, but it would be pale in the face of Joanna Bourne's amazing spies.
But I don't want to do modern lung ailments. Historical plot device lung ailments are great. Real people with diminished lung function, like a friend of mine with lifelong asthma and allergies and a new inhaler, while deserving a happy ending of course, aren't as fun as the big dramatic device. Though hey, maybe I'll just put it in a contemp. Realism.
ANYWAY. All the people in Henri et Marcel can breathe. There are other problems that modern medicine could help with, though sometimes the low-tech solution beats the fancy, new ones, as Henri discovers as he tries to find a way to fix his slipped disk/pinched nerve.