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The symptoms of leprosy can vary depending on whether the patient is suffering from tuberculoid or lepromatous leprosy. Both types of leprosy are generally caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium leprae, though tuberculoid leprosy is often considered a less serious form of the disease. Both forms leprosy can develop serious complications if left untreated, and can lead to permanent disability. Initial symptoms of leprosy generally include a skin rash, which may or may not be widespread; pain and weakness in the extremities; and dryness and stiffening of the skin. More serious complications, including loss of toes and fingers, blindness, nerve damage and infertility, can occur as the disease progresses.
Antibiotics can now be administered to treat Hansen's disease, the disease long known as leprosy. Some sources believe that leprosy remains a serious public health problem, and that there may be as many as two million people in the world today suffering from the long-term consequences of leprosy complications. Early treatment is generally recommended, since treatment often can't reverse the damage leprosy does to the body.
Early symptoms of leprosy generally include a rash on the skin. Lepromatous leprosy typically causes the most widespread rash, which can appear on the ears, face, wrists, elbows, buttocks, and knees. The rash may be bumpy or smooth, pale, or distinctive. In cases of tuberculoid leprosy, the rash is generally smaller and lighter and appears in only a few patches on the torso, hands and feet. Many patients experience reduced touch sensation in the area of a leprosy rash.
As the disease progresses, the symptoms of leprosy can become severe. Symptoms of advancing tuberculoid leprosy often include extreme pain, and weakness in the feet and hands. Skin may begin to feel dry and stiff. Digits can fall off. Nerve damage can occur, often in the nerves surrounding the knee and elbow joints. Tuberculoid leprosy can damage the tissue of the eyes, eventually leading to vision loss and blindness.
Lepromatous leprosy is often considered more serious than tuberculoid leprosy. As the disease advances, eyelashes and eyebrows may begin to fall out. The skin of the face may become thicker. Lepromatous leprosy often has devastating effects on facial structures. It can cause nasal congestion and bleeding, leading to eventual loss of the nose itself.
Later symptoms of lepromatous leprosy can damage the reproductive tract. In men, symptoms of leprosy can include gynecomastia, or the growth of breasts, and the development of scar tissue in the testes. Infertility can result. Lymph nodes in the armpits and groin may become swollen.
With prompt treatment, many of the more serious symptoms of leprosy can be prevented. Nerve damage, blindness, infertility, and loss of extremities generally can't be reversed, but treatment with antibiotics can stop the course of the disease to prevent further debilitation.