Leprosy is a chronic infection caused by the Mycobacterium leprae bacteria. It can affect the skin and the nerves of the hands and feet, as well as the eyes and the lining of the nose. In some cases, leprosy can also affect other organs, such as the kidneys and testicles in men. If left untreated, leprosy can cause deformities of the hands and feet, blindness and kidney failure.
Leprosy is also called Hansen’s disease.
Leprosy progresses very slowly. Most people who have leprosy do not develop symptoms for at least a year after being infected by the bacteria. In most cases, it takes 5 to 7 years for symptoms to develop.
Leprosy damages the nerves and muscles, and may cause sores, lesions, lumps and bumps to appear on the skin. There are 2 types of leprosy: tuberculoid leprosy and lepromatous leprosy. Tuberculoid leprosy is the less severe and less contagious form of the disease. Lepromatous leprosy is more severe and generalized. It is also more contagious. This type of leprosy may affect organs such as the kidneys, testicles (in men), eyes and nose.
Depending on the type of leprosy, symptoms may include:
Doctors aren’t exactly sure how leprosy is spread. Leprosy is not very contagious. You can’t catch it by touching someone who has the disease. Most cases of leprosy are from long-term contact with someone who has the disease. Doctors believe that leprosy might be passed from person to person by breathing in droplets that get into the air when infected people cough or sneeze. Most people who come in contact with the Mycobacterium leprae do not develop leprosy. However, people whose immune systems are weakened from chronic disease (such as diabetes, HIV, AIDS or heart disease) may be more likely to develop leprosy because their immune systems are not strong enough to fight the bacteria.
Children are more likely to develop leprosy than adults.
Your doctor will ask you questions about your medical history and the symptoms you are experiencing. He or she will probably want to remove a tiny piece of the affected skin (called a biopsy) to check for the Mycobacterium leprae bacteria.
Leprosy is treated with antibiotics. Antibiotics can kill all the Mycobacterium leprae bacteria in your body, but they can’t reverse nerve damage or deformities caused by leprosy. This is why early treatment is important. You may need to take antibiotics for 6 months or longer, depending on how severe your infection is.
If left untreated, leprosy can cause permanent damage to the nerves in the fingers, toes, hands and feet. This may affect a person’s ability to feel pain and temperature in these areas of the body. When you can’t feel your fingers or toes, you may accidentally burn, cut or hurt yourself. Repeated injuries and nerve damage can cause muscle weakness, deformities and even the loss of fingers and toes. Untreated leprosy can also cause swelling, and skin sores and lesions that are more severe.
If leprosy damages the lining of the nose, it can cause frequent nosebleeds and constant stuffiness. If leprosy damages your eyes, it can lead to glaucoma and even blindness. Lepromatous leprosy can reduce the amount of the male hormone testosterone and sperm counts in men, which can lead to erectile dysfunction and infertility. In more severe cases, leprosy can also damage the kidneys, which can lead to kidney failure.
Even though the risk of catching leprosy is very low, you can still reduce your risk. The best way to prevent leprosy is to avoid contact with body fluids and the rashes of people who have leprosy.
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff