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What is Elephantitis?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Images By: Blueringmedia, Yasser, Ocskay Bence, Nito
  • Last Modified Date: 27 August 2016
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Elephantitis, more properly elephantiasis, is a disease where the extremities become abnormally enlarged as a result of blockages in the lymphatic system. The misspelling “elephantitis” is common, as people may mishear the name of this disease and use the “-itis” ending because they know it is caused by infection and inflammation. Treatments for this condition are available, and there are also preventative measures people can take to limit the chances of developing it in the first place.

In people with elephantitis, an infection with a parasitic worm that lives in the lymphatic system leads to the development of obstructions, forcing fluid to build up in the extremities. Filariasis, a parasitic infection endemic in the tropics, is a common cause. The slowing of lymphatic circulation is also associated with increased susceptibility to skin infections, complicated by the folds of skin that develop in patients with advanced cases; organisms can start to live in the warm, dark folds. This leads to skin thickening and can cause itchy or painful lesions to appear.

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The swelling in patients with elephantitis can be extreme in some cases, and may involve arms, legs, and the genitals. It happens over an extended period of time and may cause considerable discomfort. Fitting clothing may be challenging, and patients are also shunned at times by members of their communities because of their unusual appearance. Although elephantitis is not contagious, in some areas, people believe that contact with individuals who have the disease is dangerous or unlucky.

Providing antiparasitic drugs for infections as soon as they are identified can help prevent the onset of this condition or arrest it in its tracks. For cases where mild swelling has begun to develop, using compression garments and massage to free up lymph circulation may be helpful. Keeping the skin clean and dry, even when severely swollen, is also important for limiting the development and spread of infection. With management early on, people can recover from the disease without ill effects.

Prevention campaigns attack parasitic infections known to cause this disease from a number of angles. Simple measures like encouraging people to wear shoes and providing clean sources of drinking water can cut down radically on infections, as can eliminating sources of standing water and keeping communities cleaner. These measures have dramatically reduced the rate of parasitic disease, and complications like this condition, in many regions of the developing world. International health agencies have been instrumental in this process.

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