Local drug stores carried heroin products, and you could even get it through the mail—it was so popular that it was sold in the then-iconic Sears & Roebuck catalogue. For $2.50, you could get several doses, a syringe, and a stylish travel case. Much of the advertising was aimed at women, who handled more of the childcare and were more likely to become addicted themselves. Apart from veterans, women were the most likely to use it for various illnesses as well as menstrual cramps, insomnia, and pain related to childbirth.
By the time the Spanish Flu started in 1918, heroin had become prescription-only in the United States, but prescriptions weren’t exactly hard to come by, and the country’s addiction had long since set in. It was still used in hospitals and cures for the common cold. Heroin was part of the standard treatment for the Spanish Flu as it was an effective cough suppressant and helped people to sleep.
As we know now, heroin is incredibly dangerous. As easy as it is to overdose now, it would have been far more likely in the chaos of overrun hospitals during the Spanish Flu. The cause of death would have been hard to identify. Like those who lost their lives to the Spanish Flu, many would have appeared to have died in their sleep.
Oddly enough, Hoffman’s other invention—aspirin—may have caused several deaths attributed to the Spanish Flu as well.
In 1917, just one year before the Spanish Flu, Bayer lost its patent on aspirin in America. American companies flooded the market with it to try to compete, but the boxes didn’t include any dosage information. For a long time, no one knew exactly how much you were supposed to take.
Still, when the Spanish Flu came to the United States, aspirin was recommended as a treatment and bought in huge quantities by the Navy as well as the general populace. The Journal of the American Medical Association advised people to take up to twenty-five tablets a day, more than twice the maximum safe dosage as we now know it.