Definition

What is leprosy?

Leprosy (also known as Hansen’s disease) is an infectious disease that causes severe, disfiguring skin sores and nerve damage in the arms, legs, and skin areas around the body.

Leprosy is defined by the number and type of skin sores you have. Specific symptoms and treatment depend on the type of leprosy you have. The types are:

  • A mild, less severe form of leprosy. People with this type have only one or a few patches of flat, pale-colored skin (paucibacillary leprosy). The affected area of skin may feel numb because of nerve damage underneath. Tuberculoid leprosy is less contagious than other forms.
  • A more severe form of the disease. It has widespread skin bumps and rashes (multibacillary leprosy), numbness, and muscle weakness. The nose, kidneys, and male reproductive organs may also be affected. It is more contagious than tuberculoid leprosy.
  • People with this type of leprosy have symptoms of both the tuberculoid and lepromatous forms.

How common is leprosy?

Today, about 180,000 people worldwide are infected with leprosy, according to the World Health Organization, most of them in Africa and Asia. About 100 people are diagnosed with leprosy in the U.S. every year, mostly in the South, California, Hawaii, and some U.S. territories. Children are more likely to get leprosy than adults. Leprosy can be managed by reducing your risk factors. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.

Symptoms

What are the symptoms of leprosy?

It usually takes about 3 to 5 years for symptoms to appear after coming into contact with the leprosy-causing bacteria. Some people do not develop symptoms until 20 years later. The time between contact with the bacteria and the appearance of symptoms is called the incubation period. Leprosy’s long incubation period makes it very difficult for doctors to determine when and where a person with leprosy got infected.

Leprosy primarily affects the skin and the nerves outside the brain and spinal cord, called the peripheral nerves. It may also strike the eyes and the thin tissue lining the inside of the nose.

The disease can cause skin symptoms such as:

  • A large, discolored lesion on the chest of a person with Hansen’s disease.
  • A large, discolored lesion on the chest of a person with Hansen’s disease.
  • Discolored patches of skin, usually flat, that may be numb and look faded (lighter than the skin around)
  • Growths (nodules) on the skin
  • Thick, stiff or dry skin
  • Painless ulcers on the soles of feet
  • Painless swelling or lumps on the face or earlobes
  • Loss of eyebrows or eyelashes

Symptoms caused by damage to the nerves are:

  • Numbness of affected areas of the skin
  • Muscle weakness or paralysis (especially in the hands and feet)
  • Enlarged nerves (especially those around the elbow and knee and in the sides of the neck)
  • Eye problems that may lead to blindness (when facial nerves are affected)
  • Enlarged nerves below the skin and dark reddish skin patch overlying the nerves affected by the bacteria on the chest of a patient with Hansen’s disease. This skin patch was numb when touched.
  • Enlarged nerves below the skin and dark reddish skin patch overlying the nerves affected by the bacteria on the chest of a patient with Hansen’s disease. This skin patch was numb when touched.

Symptoms caused by the disease in the mucous membranes are:

  • A stuffy nose
  • Nosebleeds

Since leprosy affects the nerves, loss of feeling or sensation can occur. When loss of sensation occurs, injuries such as burns may go unnoticed. Because you may not feel the pain that can warn you of harm to your body, take extra caution to ensure the affected parts of your body are not injured.

There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.

When should I see my doctor?

If you have any signs or symptoms listed above or have any questions, please consult with your doctor. Everyone’s body acts differently. It is always best to discuss with your doctor what is best for your situation.

Causes

What causes leprosy?

Leprosy is caused by a slow-growing type of bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae (M. leprae). Leprosy is also known as Hansen’s disease, after the scientist who discovered M. leprae in 1873.

Risk factors

What increases my risk for leprosy?

People at highest risk are those who live in the areas where leprosy is endemic (parts of India, China, Japan, Nepal, Egypt, and other areas) and especially those people in constant physical contact with infected people. (People who live with individuals who have untreated leprosy are about eight times as likely to develop the disease)

In addition, there is some evidence that genetic defects in the immune system may cause certain people to be more likely to become infected (region q25 on chromosome 6).

Additionally, people who handle certain animals that are known to carry the bacteria (for example, armadillos, African chimpanzee, sooty mangabey, and cynomolgus macaque) are at risk of getting the bacteria from the animals, especially if they do not wear gloves while handling the animals.

Diagnosis & treatment

The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.

How is leprosy diagnosed?

If you have a suspicious skin sore, your doctor will remove a small sample of the abnormal skin and send it to a lab to be examined. This is called a skin biopsy. A skin smear test may also be done. With paucibacillary leprosy, no bacteria will be detected. In contrast, bacteria are expected to be found on a skin smear test from a person with multibacillary leprosy.

How is leprosy treated?

Leprosy can be cured. In the last two decades, 16 million people with leprosy have been cured. The World Health Organization provides free treatment for all people with leprosy.

Treatment depends on the type of leprosy that you have. Antibiotics are used to treat the infection. Long-term treatment with two or more antibiotics is recommended, usually from six months to a year. People with severe leprosy may need to take antibiotics longer. Antibiotics cannot treat the nerve damage.

Anti-inflammatory drugs are used to control nerve pain and damage related to leprosy. This may include steroids, such as prednisone.

Patients with leprosy may also be given thalidomide, a potent medication that suppresses the body’s immune system. It helps treat leprosy skin nodules. Thalidomide is known to cause severe, life-threatening birth defects and should never be taken by women who are pregnant or women who may become pregnant.

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage leprosy?

The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you prevent leprosy:

Prevention of contact with droplets from nasal and other secretions from patients with untreated M. leprae infection is currently the most effective way to avoid the disease.

There is no commercially available vaccine available to prevent leprosy. However, there are reports that using BCG vaccine alone, the BCG vaccine along with heat-killed M. leprae organisms, and other preparations may be protective, help to clear the infection or possibly shorten treatment. Except for BCG being obtainable in some countries, these other preparations are not readily available.

Animals (chimpanzees, mangabey monkeys, and nine-banded armadillos) rarely transfer M. leprae to humans. Nonetheless, handling such animals in the wild is not advised. These animals are a source for endemic infections.

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Sources

Review Date: February 11, 2018 | Last Modified: February 11, 2018

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