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Instant Illness

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In the world of fiction, illnesses always progress as quickly as a heart attack. A person feeling ill will drop down within minutes of the first signs of an illness. Similarly, only hours or minutes remain for an antidote to take effect. To be fair, many diseases have a very fast progression (septicemic plague, for example, was described in Medieval writing as "the man coughs at dawn, takes to his bed at noon, and is dead by sundown.") but this trope is about diseases that move unusually fast (i.e. at the speed of plot).
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This unrealistically speedy disease progression, apart from the need to squash a 24-hour or week-long disease into the 1 or 2 hours you can keep viewers interested, is motivated by the Rule of Drama: Nobody cares about an illness that takes weeks to develop.

Surprisingly, there are some cases in medicine where this is Truth in Television, but most of the time it applies to chemical exposure or poisoning, rather than infection with bacteria, viruses or fungi. Parasitic infestations can also take on extremely quickly depending on the particular nasty that's decided to make your body its home.

See also Relationship Compression, Travelling at the Speed of Plot, and Transformation at the Speed of Plot. See also Jumping-to-Conclusions Diagnosis for when a character is sent to bed after showing only a hint of possible symptoms, which often overlaps with this trope. Contrast Soap Opera Disease and Victorian Novel Disease.

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Examples

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     Anime and Manga  

  • This happens a few times in Boys over Flowers but the most ridiculous example is when Tsukushi falls into a swimming pool in a warm, tropical setting and instantly gets a bad fever. This prevents her from getting physical with Domyoji when they are finally alone together.
  • Defied in Death Note. While death by disease is a possible killing method, there needs to be enough time for the disease to realistically develop. If the set time is too tight, it won't happen and the victim will die of the standard heart attack.
  • In Ergo Proxy, when Re-l goes to the commune outside of Romdeau to retrieve Vincent, she immediately gets sick from contamination exposure when she takes off her protective suit.
  • In Fruits Basket, Yuki tends to collapse pretty quickly if he's in the cold or overexerts himself. It's explained that he was pretty sickly as a child, and his massive self esteem issues brought on by being abandoned by his family and tormented by the head of the house no doubt contributed.
  • Shiina of Gourmet Girl Graffiti would have this when she has water splashed on.
  • In Yuu Watase's manga Imadoki!, early in their acquaintance, Kugyou finds Tanpopo planting flowers in the rain, and she suddenly collapses with a fever. She hates hospitals, so he takes her back to her apartment instead, and has to take care of her—including changing her clothes while she's unconscious.
  • In the fourth episode of Seitokai Yakuindomo, Tsuda seemed perfectly healthy until the moment he steps out from under an umbrella. Within seconds he sneezes and is sick for the next episode.
  • In Episode 21 of The Story of Cinderella, Cinderella's stepmother seems to be her normal self at first, although slightly more irritable than usual (not that she's un-irritable to begin with), but then she suddenly becomes dizzy, collapses, and in the next scene is lying comatose and in danger of dying.
  • At the start of the android arc of Dragon Ball Z, Trunks came back in time to both warn the Z Fighters about their upcoming battle with the androids and to give Goku medicine for a heart disease that killed him before the fight in the initial timeline. When the androids do show up, Goku enters the fight completely healthy but then quickly succumbs to the disease and needs to be taken home (he didn't take the medicine because he didn't feel sick). Granted, fighting for your life would put a significant strain on your heart, which would have aggravated the condition, but considering he had no symptoms at all until the fight began, it falls into this trope.

     Comics 
  • The titular Crossed spreads via bodily fluids and once infected, the symptoms are immediate. A cross-shaped rash appears on the infected's faces that spreads all the way down to the bone and they begin to enact every single act of evil they can think of, including killing, torturing and raping.

     Fan Fics  

  • The Toxic Plate is capable of creating such in Legendary Genesis.
  • In woof woof power, Big D suddenly has an open bleeding chest wound a few months after he was stabbed there. You would think it would have healed, but it just suddenly springs up and he dies.
  • In this unnamed Mork & Mindy fanfiction, Mork goes from healthy to feverish in a few minutes. Then again, he is an alien.

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     Film  

  • In Cinderella (2015), Ella's mother is shown singing her daughter to sleep on a perfectly normal, happy night, then coughs lightly as she leaves the room, and then suddenly faints in her husband's arms. In the next scene, she's on her deathbed.
  • In Deadpool (2016), Wade's late-stage cancer comes out of nowhere when he suddenly drops unconscious in his apartment.
  • In Chaplin's The Kid, John, Charlie's Doorstop Baby, is feeling feisty enough to beat up a kid twice his size. Not more than ten minutes later, John is severely ill, so sick that he has to be carried back to Charlie's little apartment.
  • In North Sea Texas, Marcella offhandedly mentions that she needs to get her kidneys checked. The next time we see her is on her deathbead.
  • In Outbreak, the Motaba Virus almost immediately enters the infectious phase right after initial infection (At first it was through physical touch, though once the virus mutates it can spread through the air), with symptoms appearing after about four hours which includes a flush looking face, severe cough, and high fever. A few hours later, the victim will be too weak to move, have difficulty breathing, and experience extreme hemorrhaging, eventually suffering seizures, organ failure, and, about twenty-four hours after infection, death.
  • In the film Seasons of The Heart, the narrator/protagonist is a woman whose two young daughters died of cholera. In describing the tragedy, she says that just hours before they died, they were by all appearances perfectly healthy, running around picking wildflowers. They fell ill mid-afternoon, and both were gone by the next morning. She even lampshades it a bit, beginning the story by saying, "There was no illness that extinguished the flame of life as swiftly as cholera." Justified as this one is Truth in Television: depending on the strain, cholera actually can be that lethal, and given the setting (mid to late 1800s, somewhere along the Oregon Trail), not only were there no real treatments available for cholera, but on top of that, unless they were fortunate enough to have a doctor in their wagon party or were within a few hours of some kind of settlement, they wouldn't have been able to get the girls any kind of medical attention before it was too late.
  • Towards the end of Flesh+Blood (1985), pieces of a dog that died of plague are launched into the besieged castle in the night. One of the pieces ends up in the well. The mercenaries who have taken over the castle drink some water in the morning and start showing symptoms before they finish breakfast.

     Literature  

  • Isaac Asimov's "Breeds There a Man...?": For the most part, the government agents don't believe in the mysterious aliens that Dr Ralston blames for his suicidal tendencies. The most convincing argument in their existence is the sudden suicide of the engineer who worked on the prototype Deflector Shields. They had never even heard of Dr Ralston, much less his ravings about aliens and penicillin, but after completing their work on the prototype, they walked into the path of an oncoming car for a quick death.
  • The Chalet School books are pretty bad for this, probably because of Values Dissonance and girls being considered to be delicate, as well as the school's large Delicate and Sickly contingent. Any exposure to chills, rain, drafts, mud or cold water is fairly certain to leave the victim in the grip of a life-threatening disease if they're not immediately put into a hot bath and then into bed with two hot water bottles. In one book, Jo spends three days unconscious and is bedridden for over a week after standing for literally a few minutes by an open door on a snowy day.
  • Galaxy of Fear once has Tash given an injection that, within hours, has her sweating, feeling unusually irritable, and growing a rash-covered lump on that arm. Then it starts oozing, because it's the Blob Monster Virus. The one responsible actually coolly observes that the disease isn't progressing in her as fast as he'd expected.
  • Madeline: In the first book, Madeline's appendicitis is suddenly revealed when her crying wakes Miss Clavel in the middle of the night and she needs to be rushed to the hospital. The animated version averts this with its Adaptation Expansion, though, as Madeline is shown acting unusually tired and gloomy and refusing to eat throughout the whole day beforehand.
  • There are many instantaneous deaths from Captain Trips in The Stand despite other victims taking days to die. It’s especially noticeable in The Film of the Book.

     Live Action TV  

  • Happens every week on House, although the show handwaves it by saying that the patient only sought Dr. House's help when the diseases is at its final stages (when it can progress that fast), or because the overly invasive diagnostic tests and treatments House prescribed is causing an adverse reaction.
  • On Bones, Arastoo gets sick very quickly from a genetically modified virus when he pricks his finger on a needle embedded in the victim’s arm. It likely took a little time to get all the equipment set up where they were treating him, but it’s obvious it’s still the same day, with maybe an hour or so passing. By a couple hours later, he’s almost dead. Only finding the killer and getting the antidote saves him. Although the virus was genetically engineered, it still moved faster than many real pathogens.
  • Voyagers!: In "Voyagers of the Titanic", Jeff becomes feverish and slips into half-consciousness seemingly within hours of being bitten once on the hand by a rabid dog. Rabies often takes months before the symptoms become evident and furthermore, once the symptoms begin showing, recovery is virtually impossible. However, because it's a show, the disease and the vaccine (which functions as a cure) both progress quickly.

     Theatre  

  • Jake Heggie's operatic adaptation of Moby-Dick portrays Queequeg's near-fatal illness this way, with him seeming perfectly well throughout most of Act 3, Scene 1, but then suddenly collapsing near the scene's end. This isn't the case in the novel, but the opera naturally had to compress the timeline for the stage.
  • This trope is the basis of Eugene Ionesco's The Killing Game, which centers around a town that is hit with a sudden epidemic of an unknown disease that causes previously-healthy people to drop dead in a matter of minutes. As with many of his plays, Ionesco uses this framework to explore the human condition, in this case how humans react to chaotic or frightening situations on a mass scale.

     Radio  

  • Our Miss Brooks: In "Measles", Miss Brooks catches the measles within twelve hours of being exposed to them.
  • Parodied by The Firesign Theatre in the game show "Beat the Reaper". The contestant is infected with a deadly disease and has less than a minute to use the ensuing symptoms to guess the disease, get the treatment, and beat the reaper.

     Video Games  

  • In Skool Daze, there is an event where a student has the mumps and you must avoid all physical contact with him for the duration of break-time (a few minutes). If he does touch you, you instantly develop mumps and get sent home, ending the game.
  • If you're bitten by a mosquito during the Suez Canal chapter of Jigsaw, you will drop dead from malaria within a few turns.
  • In Metal Slug 3 and 4, any player character or civilian hit by infectious zombie fluids drops dead immediately, gets struck by a lightning bolt and becomes a zombie, all in the span of 2 seconds. The inverse is also true— a zombified player character merely touching a medkit is instantly cured and turns back to human immediately.
  • In Ni no Kuni right out of nowhere Oliver's mother suddenly falls to the ground; which is explained by a random NPC as "She always had a weak heart dear". This is pretty much never elaborated on at any other point.
  • In All Aboard, the game 4 of Westward, citizens can suddenly become sick, rendering them unable to work. They either heal after so many minutes or can be taken to the doctor's office for a quick heal.
    • Game 5 Kingdoms adapts this from a simple illness into being turned into a frog by means of a curse, for the same effect.
  • In the CD ROM version of The Oregon Trail anyone who catches a bad cold will instantaneously spread it through the entire wagon party on the same day they catch it. Punctuated by a sneeze every single time another party member gets it.

     Web Original 
  • Chubbyemu: Some of the medical illnesses and poisonings discussed on the channel show that some of them really do kick in extremely quickly, and almost instantly in some examples - these include a student getting infected with the Anisakis simplex parasite, and a man suffering from alcohol withdrawal getting poisoned by drinking a lava lamp full of propylene glycol in desperation, feeling his stomach struggle almost instantly.

     Western Animation 

  • A lot of shows that deal with the chicken pox don't bother to show the aches, fatigue and fever that typically start a day or two before the rash appears, but just have the sick character suddenly develop spots.
    • Madeline: In Madeline and the Costume Party, the twelve girls suddenly notice each other's spots while showing each other their party costumes.
    • Muppet Babies (1984): Piggy suddenly breaks out in spots during a charades game and doesn't notice until the other kids mistakenly assume she's pretending to be a leopard.
    • Katie and Orbie: in Chicken Pox Party, Katie suddenly starts to itch and breaks out in spots in the middle of the afternoon of Halloween.
    • Milly, Molly: In "Spots and Stripes", Milly gets chicken pox. She doesn't get it gradually, she just wakes up showing all the symptoms.
    • Arthur: Zigzagged in "Arthur's Chicken Pox". Arthur's chicken pox comes on gradually, with him having a fever hallucination in art class and needing to go see the school nurse well before the spots appear, but at the end of the episode D.W. just wakes up with spots all over.
  • Captain Planet and the Planeteers: In "Hate Canal", the mutated rats' bites take effect pretty quickly; one of the locals, Pietre, starts moaning and loses consciousness on his feet within minutes of being bitten. When Ma-Ti is bitten by a rat infected by a "fast-acting" mutating formula, he collapses to the floor, unable to stand and crying out in pain within moments. Before the team can reach the hospital, he's unconscious and already in an advanced stage.
  • Harry and His Bucket Full of Dinosaurs: Zigzagged for Harry's dinosaurs in "Achoo". Taury casually remarks that he is not feeling too good, then he breaks out in purple spots and becomes sick with "Itchy-spot-itis", then it spreads to Sid who instantly becomes sick... with a different disease. At the same time, Pterence gets a third disease and Trike gets a horn ache, though it's unclear who they caught those diseases from and when. Patsy also doesn't get sick until much later and Steggy doesn't get sick at all.
  • The Loud House: In "One Flu Over the Loud House", the Louds and their pets all get the flu and all of them become sick within seconds of being infected, with the exception of Luan and Lincoln (who had a minor delay compared to the others and started sneezing before showing other symptoms) but even their illnesses took a matter of minutes to show. Enforced in that it's more a parody of the Zombie Apocalypse genre than an accurate representation of the flu.
  • Peppa Pig:
    • In "George Catches a Cold", not only did George catch his cold from the rain, but he became sick in a matter of seconds.
    • In "Pedro's Cough", Pedro gets this bizarre disease where the only symptom is a cough and it spreads extremely rapidly. It can be instantly cured with a medicine that apparently has a bad and unusual taste.
  • Recess: At the end of "Rainy Days," T.J. and the gang all catch colds within less than a minute from playing in the rain.
  • Rugrats:
    • In 'Slumber Party," Angelica opens Tommy's window during their nap time, letting in a cold breeze, and by that very night Tommy is feverish and hallucinating.
    • Subverted in "All's Well That Pretends Well": The adults think that the babies have suddenly gotten sick, but actually they were pretending, so that they could keep Angelica (who was apparently sick at the time) company.
  • In one of The Simpsons "Treehouse of Horror" episodes (spooky non-canon episodes that air around Halloween), the Simpsons go back in time while Homer catches a cold and not only does he catch it instantly, he spreads it to the dinosaurs and they catch it instantly too.
  • The Powerpuff Girls (1998): In "Gesundfight," the Amoeba Boys' illness spreads across Townsville within a single morning, and we see several characters become ill as soon as they make contact with another infected person. It's later explained the Amoeba Boys's single-cell anatomy mixed with the virus to make it more infectious.
  • Played for horror in Primal (2019): in "Plague of Madness," a mild-mannered Argentinosaurus is bitten by a Hadrosaur infected with some kind of zombie-like disease. Seconds after being bitten, the Argentinosaurus turns a sickly green and starts vomiting blood; the disease then causes it to go completely berserk and slaughter its entire herd. And then Spear and Fang happen upon the grisly scene... Spear also has a Nightmare Sequence where it successfully bites him and Fang, which causes them to immediately start rotting away.


 
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