About elephantiasis

What is elephantiasis?

Elephantiasis is a condition characterized by gross enlargement of an area of the body, especially the limbs. Other areas commonly affected include the external genitals. Elephantiasis is caused by obstruction of the lymphatic system, which results in the accumulation of a fluid called lymph in the affected areas.

Functioning as part of the immune system, the lymphatic system helps to protect the body against infection and disease. It consists of a network of tubular channels (lymph vessels) that drain a thin watery fluid known as lymph from different areas of the body into the bloodstream. Obstruction of these vessels results in the massive swelling and gross enlargement characteristic of elephantiasis.

In areas where filariasis is endemic, the most common cause of elephantiasis is a parasitic disease known as lymphatic filariasis and, in the medical literature, the terms lymphatic filariasis and elephantiasis may be used interchangeably. Elephantiasis due to lymphatic filariasis may also be referred to as "true" elephantiasis. In most areas, the lymphatic damage associated with elephantiasis has other causes including certain sexually transmitted diseases (e.g., lymphogranuloma venereum); tuberculosis; an infectious disease called leishmaniasis; repeated streptococcal infections; leprosy; and environmental factors such as exposure to certain minerals (e.g., silica). In some cases, no cause can be identified (idiopathic).

Recently a team of researchers funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has recently revealed the genetic secrets of one of these parasites. The researchers report solving the complete genome of Brugia malayi, one of the worms that causes the often debilitating disease elephantiasis.

What are the symptoms for elephantiasis?

The most common symptom of elephantiasis is Swelling of body parts. The Swelling tends to happen in the:

  • legs
  • genitals
  • breasts
  • arms

The legs are the most commonly affected area. The Swelling and enlargement of body parts can lead to Pain and mobility issues.

The skin is also affected and may be:

  • dry
  • thick
  • ulcerated
  • darker than normal
  • pitted

Some people experience additional symptoms, such as Fever and chills.

Elephantiasis affects the immune system. People with this condition are also at increased risk for a secondary infection.

What are the causes for elephantiasis?

Elephantiasis is caused by parasitic worms that are spread by mosquitoes. There are three types of worms involved:

  • Wuchereria bancrofti
  • Brugia malayi
  • Brugia timori

The worms affect the lymphatic system in the body. The lymphatic system is responsible for removing waste and toxins. If It becomes blocked, then it doesn’t properly remove waste. This leads to a backup of lymphatic fluid, which causes swelling.

What are the treatments for elephantiasis?

Treatment for elephantiasis includes:

  • antiparasitic drugs, such as diethylcarbamazine (DEC), mectizan, and albendazole (Albenza)
  • using good hygiene to clean the affected areas
  • elevating the affected areas
  • caring for wounds in the affected areas
  • exercising based on a doctor’s directions
  • surgery in extreme cases, which may include reconstructive surgery for the affected areas or surgery to remove affected lymphatic tissue

Treatment may also include emotional and psychological support.

What are the risk factors for elephantiasis?

Elephantiasis can affect people at any age. It appears in both women and men. It’s more common in tropical and subtropical parts of the world, such as:

  • Africa
  • Southeast Asia
  • India
  • South America

Common risk factors for elephantiasis include:

  • living for a long time in tropical and subtropical areas
  • having a high exposure to mosquitoes
  • living in unsanitary conditions

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