What is Elephantiasis?
Elephantiasis is a pathologic condition in which there is severe enlargement of a specific area of the body especially the lower extremities. Another area where Elephantiasis can be seen includes the external genital area. The main cause of this condition is believed to be obstruction of the lymphatic system causing fluid to accumulate in the affected area. This leads to enlargement.
The function of the lymphatic system is to protect the body against bacteria, fungi, and viruses and various other diseases. The lymphatic system contains lymph vessels that release fluid called lymph into the blood. If these vessels get obstructed then it results in development of lymphedema which when not addressed progresses to cause severe enlargement of an area of the body resulting in Elephantiasis.
The reasons why the lymphatic system gets obstructed are many and include sexually transmitted diseases, TB, frequent bouts of strep infections, leprosy, and overexposure to silica which is a common chemical.
What Causes Elephantiasis?
The primary cause of Elephantiasis is believed to be roundworms. The common roundworms that cause this condition include:
- Wuchereria bancrofti, which constitute for 90% of cases of Elephantiasis
- Brugia malayi, causes the remainder of the cases
- Brugia timori, is a very rare cause of Elephantiasis.
The mode of transmission of Elephantiasis is by way of mosquitoes. When they bite and inject the blood of an infected individual, they get infected with the larvae of the parasite. When they go on to bite another individual they then pass on the larvae to him or her. These larvae then travel to the lymphatic system through the blood and start to mature causing Elephantiasis.
What are the Symptoms of Elephantiasis?
Despite the damage that is inflicted by these roundworms in the lymphatic system and the kidneys, many people do not experience any symptoms. In some cases, however, people tend to experience.
- Leg swelling
- Arm swelling
- Breast Swelling
- Swelling of the genitals
Elephantiasis causes the immune system to become impaired. Thus people with this condition are prone to frequent infections. Generally people with Elephantiasis will have infections of the skin causing the skin to become dry, thick, and ulcerated. They also tend to get fever and chills more frequently.
How is Elephantiasis Diagnosed?
For a confirmative diagnosis of Elephantiasis, the physician will take a detailed history of the patient and will make a note of the symptoms. A visual inspection of the affected area will then be performed. The physician will then send the patient for a blood test which will confirm the presence of a parasitic infection.
It should be noted here that the roundworms that cause Elephantiasis are extremely active at night and thus the blood to be tested should be taken at night for best results. Some physicians also send the patient for an ultrasound and x-ray of the affected area to have a better look at it and rule out other conditions that may be causing the swelling. The results of all these tests will confirm the diagnosis of Elephantiasis.
How is Elephantiasis Treated?
The primary mode of treatment for Elephantiasis is by way of antiparasitic medications. These medications eliminate the worms present in the blood and also prevent the contagiousness of the disease. Some of the preferred antiparasitic medications used for treatment of Elephantiasis include diethylcarbamazine, albendazole, and doxycycline.
Aside from the swelling, the other symptoms of Elephantiasis are treated by antihistamines, analgesics, and antibiotics. It is not necessary that everybody with Elephantiasis will require medication for treatment. This is because they may just have the symptoms but the worms causing it may no longer be there in the body. The swelling in such instances is managed by simple remedies like.
- Washing the area with soap and warm water daily
- Moisturizing the skin
- Keep the affected area elevated for proper flow of blood to the area
- Regular exercise under the supervision of the doctor to strengthen the lymphatic system
- Keep the affected area wrapped to prevent swelling from increasing.
In cases where the lymph tissue is damaged beyond recovery, then a surgery will be performed to remove the tissue or for pressure release in certain areas like the scrotum if that is affected by the disease. Some people tend to get upset psychologically by looking at the affected area. For such people, it is important to consult a support group or seek individual counseling on the best ways to deal with a condition like Elephantiasis.