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A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia [Internet]. Atlanta (GA): A.D.A.M.; 2013.

A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia [Internet].

Leprosy

Hansen's disease

Last reviewed: September 1, 2013.

Leprosy is a disease that has been known since biblical times. This infectious disease causes skin sores, nerve damage, and muscle weakness that gets worse over time.

Causes

Leprosy is caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium leprae. It is not very contagious and it has a long incubation period (time before symptoms appear), which makes it hard to know where or when someone caught the disease. Children are more likely than adults to get the disease.

Leprosy has two common forms: tuberculoid and lepromatous. Both forms produce sores on the skin. However, the lepromatous form is most severe. It causes large lumps and bumps (nodules).

Leprosy is common in many countries worldwide, and in temperate, tropical, and subtropical climates. About 100 cases per year are diagnosed in the United States. Most cases are in the South, California, Hawaii, and U.S. islands.

Effective medications exist. Isolating people with this disease in "leper colonies" is not needed.

Drug-resistant Mycobacterium leprae and an increased numbers of cases worldwide have led to global concern about this disease.

Symptoms

Symptoms include:

Exams and Tests

Treatment

A number of different antibiotics (including dapsone, rifampin, clofazamine, fluoroquinolones, macrolides, and minocycline) are used to kill the bacteria that cause the disease. More than one antibiotic is often given together.

Aspirin, prednisone, or thalidomide is used to control inflammation.

Outlook (Prognosis)

Diagnosing the disease early is important. Early treatment limits damage, prevents a person from spreading the disease, and allows the person to have a normal lifestyle.

Possible Complications

  • Disfigurement
  • Muscle weakness
  • Permanent nerve damage in the arms and legs

People with long-term leprosy may lose the use of their hands or feet due to repeated injury because they lack feeling in those areas.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your health care provider if you have symptoms of leprosy, especially if you have had contact with someone who has the disease. Cases of leprosy in the United States need to be reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Prevention

Prevention consists of avoiding close physical contact with untreated people. People on long-term medication become noninfectious (they do not transmit the organism that causes the disease).

References

  1. Renault CA, Ernst JD. Mycobacterium leprae. In: Mandell GL, Bennett JE, Dolin R, eds. Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2009:chap 251.
  2. Ernst JD. Leprosy (Hansen's disease). In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 334.

Review Date: 9/1/2013.

Reviewed by: Jatin M. Vyas, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Assistant in Medicine, Division of Infectious Disease, Department of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only — they do not constitute endorsementscof those other sites. © 1997–2011 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

Copyright © 2013, A.D.A.M., Inc.

A.D.A.M., Inc. is accredited by URAC, also known as the American Accreditation HealthCare Commission (www.urac.org). URAC's accreditation program is an independent audit to verify that A.D.A.M. follows rigorous standards of quality and accountability. A.D.A.M. is among the first to achieve this important distinction for online health information and services. Learn more about A.D.A.M.'s editorial policy, editorial process and privacy policy. A.D.A.M. is also a founding member of Hi-Ethics and subscribes to the principles of the Health on the Net Foundation (www.hon.ch).

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only — they do not constitute endorsementscof those other sites. © 1997–2011 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

Copyright © 2013, A.D.A.M., Inc.

What works?

  • Interventions for skin changes caused by nerve damage in leprosyInterventions for skin changes caused by nerve damage in leprosy
    Three million persons are affected by nerve damage caused by leprosy (Hansen's disease) worldwide. Leprosy is a chronic infectious disease caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium leprae. About 30% of people with leprosy develop nerve damage that can lead to loss of normal sensation and skin damage. The skin can crack and become infected and ulcerated. Impairment of the affected limb, caused by nerve damage, can result in severe joint deformity and injuries. The major areas affected by sensory loss are the hands (especially the palms), feet (especially the soles) and eyes. The drug therapy offered to those with leprosy is efficacious and has low relapse rates. However, even with treatment, many with leprosy will go on to develop secondary damage to skin and limbs as the nerve damage sustained cannot be reversed. In some, treatment leads to inflammatory reactions in the nerves, sometimes resulting in further damage.
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