Elephantiasis, also known as lymphatic filariasis, is a disease that can cause arms and legs to swell, and skin to become hard and thick like an elephant’s. It is spread by infected mosquitoes and affects millions of low-income people in tropical areas, but you can’t catch it in Australia.
What causes elephantiasis?
Elephantiasis is painful disease that occurs when tiny parasite larvae are transferred to the body through mosquito bites. It is a major cause of disability in endemic areas.
When someone is bitten by an infected mosquito, microscopic larvae are left on the skin and can enter the person’s body. The larvae can then migrate to the lymph system, where they develop into mature roundworms and can live for years.
People are usually infected with lymphatic filariasis in childhood but don't develop symptoms until later in life.
About 120 million people in the world are affected with elephantiasis, mainly in Asia, Africa, the Western Pacific and parts of the Caribbean and South America.
It usually takes repeated mosquito bites over several months or years in an area where lymphatic filariasis is common for a person to become infected. It is very rare to be infected after only visiting the area for a short time.
Most infected people don't have any obvious symptoms, but they may still suffer damage to the lymph system and kidneys. They can of course still contribute to the spreading of the parasite.
Because elephantiasis affects the lymph system, it can lead to swelling in some people, known as lymphoedema (an accumulation of fluid). Usually the legs, arms, breasts or genitals are affected. Sometimes men experience a swollen scrotum, called hydrocele.
Elephantiasis stops the immune system from working properly, leading to fever and chills, repeated skin infections and ulcers. These can make the skin hard and thick.
Diagnosis of elephantiasis
Elephantiasis is diagnosed with a blood test, which looks for the microscopic worms. The blood must be taken at night, when the worms are most active. However, the swelling may not happen until many years after the person is infected, so the lab tests are often negative.
Treatment of elephantiasis
Elephantiasis is treated with medicine to kill the microscopic worms. The medicine stops the infection from being passed on to other people, but it may not kill all the worms. An infected person will usually need to take the medicine for several weeks.
When to seek help
Elephantiasis can make you more likely to get infections. If you have elephantiasis, see your doctor straight away if you develop any swelling, thickening of the skin or signs of an infection.
Living with elephantiasis
If you develop lymphoedema, you can manage the swelling by:
- keeping the area clean by washing it with soap and water every day
- elevating the limb to drain the fluid
- performing exercises that get the fluid moving
- using antibacterial or antifungal cream on any wounds if necessary
Elephantiasis can be very upsetting, disabling and can stop you leading a normal life. It can contribute to stigma and poverty, but counselling and support groups may help. Talk to your doctor about this.
For more information about lymphoedema, visit the Australasian Lymphology Association.
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Last reviewed: March 2019