Porphyria: Disease Of The Walking Dead

“Listen to them, the children of the night. What music they make!” —Bram Stoker, Dracula

In A Nutshell

Porphyria is a hormone disease that causes sufferers to develop horrifying physical symptoms and light sensitivity. It is believed that severe cases of the little-understood disease gave rise to the legends of vampires and werewolves.

The Whole Bushel

Porphyria is a genetic disorder of porphyrins (organic compounds of which heme—red blood cell pigment—is the most common in humans). Of the two types of porphyria (one affecting the nervous system and one affecting the skin) the most horrifying is cutaneous porphyria (porphyria of the skin). The most common symptoms are blisters, necrosis (destruction of the flesh), swelling, redness, itching, and severe light sensitivity.

The term porphyria comes from the Greek word for purple because some sufferers develop purple-colored feces and urine when they are exposed to sunlight (due to excess porphyrins near the surface of the skin). This same exposure can also cause extensive hair growth on the forehead which could be—in part—the root of werewolf myths.

A person with porphyria experiences extreme pain and nausea which requires treatment with strong opium-based painkillers. Even a person with few physical symptoms can have excruciating pain. The physical symptoms of the disease and the need to shun light is almost certainly behind the various legends of vampires found all around the world.

The humiliation and pain caused by this disease is bad enough, but to make matters worse, sufferers of porphyria were frequently treated with electroconvulsive therapy due to a lack of understanding of the illness. Needless to say, it didn’t help.

In ancient history (before vampires were spoken of) blood consumption and other vampirish acts were attributed to demons. It wasn’t until Christianity began taking a hold around the world that the demonic tales began to morph into the walking-dead style of vampire that we are all more familiar with. This is perhaps reminiscent of the rising from the dead that is found in Biblical tales.

Show Me The Proof

LiveScience: Vampires, the Real History
Medline Plus: Porphyria

  • Hestie Barnard Gerber

    Very interesting and extremely sad. That is a horrific picture – reminds one to count your blessings….

  • rhijulbec

    Just horrific! I’ve not seen a case of this in my nursing career and hope I never do. Heartbreaking.

    • Fresco Martinez

      I asked my wife “she’s a nurse too” If she’s ever had a patient with this disease and she said no too and said that the sheer emotional pain must drive ppl out of their mind from it.

      • rhijulbec

        It would be just heartbreaking! And not a lot of treatments either. I only worked in hospital while training. My career was spent working as a community nurse and then teaching. I heard of this bit have never seen it. Tell your wife hurrah for being a nurse. No better profession! lol

        • Fresco Martinez

          She also says she’s seen more dicks than a prostitute lol yeah nurses are and teachers are very unappreciated heroes.

          • rhijulbec

            Its true! lol But men tend not to be too mouthy when a nurse is shoving a tube up his penis. They actually don’t say anything…lol Yup teachers too! You couldn’t pay me enough to spend 6 hours a day in a classroom with 40 kids! I go stark raving mad…so yes you said it they are heros.

          • inconspicuous detective

            hey. i plan to be a teacher. thank you for the compliment, i figure my work is really cut out for me.

          • rhijulbec

            I have nothing but the highest regard for a woman/man who would, on purpose, place themselves alone with no weapons, in a room with more than one child! I hope you do become a teacher ID. Good on ya mate…I’m a nurse and can put up with almost anything, but I am not a 25 small children in a room type of person. I love my girls and my grands to pieces, but have never had the patience for a lot of kids at a time.

    • Malaena Medford

      Oh you’d have a ball with me, hereditary coproporphyria and I baffle medical science. Every doctor I see, I have to explain my condition to them because it’s around 1 in 1,000,000 that actually have it. I am a female covered in fur-like hair, I experience severe abdominal pain, I go through seizures may times in a week or even a day, and I cannot go in sunlight AT ALL. I have to take B complex vitamins, vitamin D3, gabapentin, and eat a carbohydrate-rich diet. My most recent attack sent me to the hospital with gastric hemorrhaging after being exposed to sunlight.

      I am very lucky in that I stopped going in the sun directly as post-pubescent teen because the “acne” only appeared in sunlight. Turns out it was blisters and rashes, and I wore thick hoodies to protect myself, even then they aren’t effective if not treated to be UV repellent. I did not become deformed like a lot of people with my disease, but I cannot work or do much of anything because of constant pain and advanced peripheral neuropathy.

      But what can you do eh? I published a book called Lycantis because I formed a love of werewolves and I am trying to get it going quickly because my lifespan, among others of my severity, is very short. I have accepted that I am dying, I don’t like it, but I might as well do something creative before I go. ^_^

  • Marozia

    My cousin has cutaneous porphyria.

    • Fresco Martinez

      How old is your cousin?

      • Marozia

        She is 55. There are other cases of porphyria in the family as well.

        • Fresco Martinez

          Damn so it runs in your family.

    • rhijulbec

      So sorry to hear that.

  • cjb

    Makes me grateful that hypertension and thyroid difficulties are my only problems…

  • Fresco Martinez

    Yeah it’s horrible that someone has to endure this kind of pain and solitude. But with the advances in modern science and medicine there will one day be a cure. . Hope is always there nomatter how dark things may seem. I couldn’t imagine the judgement and prosecution that ppl with this disease have to carry.

    • Malaena Medford

      Like not being able to work from nerve damage and chronic pain whilst being called a hypochondriac and being called worthless by Wal-Mart supervisors.

  • Subhaprasad

    i also read that porphyria creates a strong desire for blood which has basically created the vampire myth. It also starts eating the flesh and the brain of the victim inside out. It causes enlargement of teeth giving the vampire feel and also like vampires porphyria victims hate garlic as it aggravates their symptoms. So therefore it’s also referred to as the vampire disease.

    • Malaena Medford

      The craving for blood is a primal instinct, if you need calcium you crave anything resembling chalk. There are other diseases causing blood cravings as well. 🙂 It does not eat them from the inside either, it degenerates from toxicity, the amount of porphyrins in the system causes nerve and tissue damage. The teeth also do not enlarge, but rather the gums recede making them appear larger. And yes, garlic affects a lot of porphyrics because of allicin:

      Most porphyrics with acute porphyrias have a sensitivity to sulfur, therefore anything sulfur-based like garlic will exacerbate their disease, this is why “vampires” are sensitive to garlic. Oh also, on a side note, vampires of Scandinavian descent were sun sensitive, not all vampires were identical but the one thing they had in common was blood drinking and psychosis.

    • Malaena Medford
  • Hey Nurse!

    My opa passed from porphyria before I was born.. He didn’t look like the guy pictured above… although he was extremely jaundice in the end and had purple urine. My dad was telling me that my opa use to have blood letting performed on him as a form of treatment! Crazy shit!

    • Pyncky

      Sorry for my ignorance, but what exactly is and Opa. I am assuming it is a grandparent of some sort but when I googled it I got these:

      Office of the Pardon Attorney,

      Office of Price Administration,

      Ontario Power Authority,

      Ouagadougou Peace Agreement,

      Outward Processing Arrangement,

      Obscene Publications Act 1959,

      Oil Pollution Act of 1990,

      Opa (band), Uruguayan jazz group

      OPA! (band), a Swedish musical band

      “OPA” (song), a song by Giorgos Alkaios & Friends competing in the Eurovision Song Contest 2010 for Greece

      “Opa Opa”, a song by Notis Sfakianakis, later covered by both Antique and Despina Vandi

      Opa Opa, an alternative name to the album Mera Me Ti Mera by Antique

      optical parametric amplifier,

      There were some more but I am too lazy to keep copy and pasting.

      • J_Doe5686

        Maybe it’s slang for grandfather.

      • inconspicuous detective

        grandpa, it’s german i’m pretty sure.

      • Robert Downey

        Dutch, Afrikaans and German for Grandfather. Oma is the female equivalent.

  • J_Doe5686

    It’s awful!

  • TSC

    Oh God… not this again, please.

    Porphyria was suggested as an explanation for vampire myths by Dr. David Dolphin in 1985. However, Dr. Dolphin was neither an expert in porphyria, nor knowledgeable about actual vampire folklore (as opposed to modern vampire fiction).

    Dr. Dolphin suggested that porphyria’s effects on the body could explain the appearance of vampires – pointed ears, fangs, etc. However, these are characteristics created by fiction writers in the 19th century, and are not part of actual traditional vampire folklore. Similarly, he suggested that since porphyriacs need to stay out of sunlight, that this would explain vampires needing to stay out of sunlight – unfortunately, this too is not part of vampire folklore, but is a creation of modern fiction writers. Neither are folkloric vampires pale – they are usually described as dark-complected or ruddy.

    Garlic has never been shown to worsen porphyria, and porphyriacs do not crave blood, nor would drinking blood help them, since the chemicals in the digestive tract would destroy the things in blood that they need before they would ever get them.

    “The Straight Dope” covered this 14 years ago, and it’s been debunked in many other places as well – including the alt.vampyres FAQ. You can also find excellent coverage of it in Paul Barber’s book “Vampires, Burial, and Death”.

    The same things apply to the idea that porphyria can explain werewolves – another doctor proposed that, who also wasn’t an expert on porphyria, and also didn’t know anything about werewolves beyond what he’d learned from Hollywood movies. Folkloric werewolves don’t turn into half-man, half-wolf creatures – they turn into wolves. (And, in most folklore, they do so deliberately, via magic.)

    Please don’t continue to spread this misinformation – it’s caused considerable pain to people who have porphyria, who have enough of it to deal with already without this BS continuing to be spread around.

    • Malaena Medford

      I beg your pardon, but being a person with the disease porphyria and knowing my vampire AND werewolf histories in most countries, I can most definitely see the connection. Also, for your information i cannot eat garlic or anything in the onion family because of the high sulfur content causing VIOLENT SEIZURES and full-blown attacks. Oh and I DO crave blood, which probably has something to do with psychological need, if you need calcium, you will desire anything white and chalk-like, if you have a blood disorder, blood really does help because it breaks down into basic chemicals and ingredients that the body can use to synthesize blood, however, carbohydrates in high consumption are better as they slow the synthesis of porphyrins and help the body replenish blood.

      You are berating someone for making a connection that even I can see as a person who knows this disease PERSONALLY and from a medical and historical standpoint. My kind, porphyrics, were also accused of being demons and zombies.

      Oh and lastly, for your information, I can see the werewolf connection, I am a woman covered in FUR!!! A lot of porphyrics also loos their fingers causing a paw-like structure, and they do develop pointed ears and muzzle-like faces from cartilage degeneration. What you were yelling at the author about showed you obviously did not do research, and that you are stuck in the whole cinema crap that has been established. Not ALL of the cinema drama is fake, not all of it is unfounded. And not ALL werewolf and vampire myths came from the same dang country, they were formed from diseases of all types in ever corner of the earth.

      Stop accusing people of misinformation before you research, I greatly enjoyed reading something that makes sense from the perspective of a “werewolf” in the flesh. And I wouldn’t mind being associated with a wolf, they are wonderful creatures.