Elephantiasis is also known as lymphatic filariasis. It’s caused by parasitic worms, and can spread from person to person through mosquitoes. Elephantiasis causes swelling of the scrotum, legs, or breasts.
Elephantiasis is considered a neglected tropical disease (NTD). It’s more common in tropical and subtropical areas of the world, including Africa and Southeast Asia. It’s estimated that 120 million people have elephantiasis.
The most common symptom of elephantiasis is swelling of body parts. The swelling tends to happen in the:
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:
- darker than normal
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.
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.
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:
- Southeast Asia
- 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
Your doctor will ask about your medical history and symptoms and do a physical exam. You may also need blood tests to help your doctor make a diagnosis. After taking a sample of your blood, it’s sent to a lab where it’s examined for the presence of the parasites.
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.
The most common complication of elephantiasis is disability caused by extreme swelling and enlargement of body parts. The pain and swelling can make it difficult to complete daily tasks or work. In addition, secondary infections are a common concern with elephantiasis.
Elephantiasis is a disease spread by mosquitoes. Prevention may be possible by:
- avoiding mosquitoes or taking precautions to reduce your risk for mosquito bites
- getting rid of mosquito breeding areas
- using mosquito nets
- wearing insect repellants
- wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants in areas with a lot of mosquitoes
- taking diethylcarbamazine (DEC), albendazole, and ivermectin as a preventative treatment before traveling to areas prone to infection
If you’re traveling to tropical or subtropical regions short term, your risk of getting elephantiasis is low. Living in these areas long term can increase your risk.