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One of the oldest diseases known to mankind is leprosy. This chronic disease causes severe disfigurement and disability. Leprosy is common in countries with tropical or subtropical climates. Learn more about this dreaded condition from the following paragraphs.

What is Leprosy?

Leprosy is a chronic, bacterial disease that causes severe disfigurement and nerve damage in the arms and legs. This is the reason it has always been associated with negative stigmas and people affected by it were considered social outcasts.

Leprosy is a contagious disease, but not very contagious. It can spread only by repeated and close contact with the droplets from the nose and mouth of an infected person. The symptoms are very slow to appear. About 5 to 10 years may pass before the symptoms of leprosy appear after the initial exposure.


Leprosy is a granulomatous disease. It affects the peripheral nerves and mucosa of the upper respiratory tract. When untreated, it turns progressive, causing damage to the skin, nerves, limbs and eyes. Secondary infections set in causing body parts to become diseased and numb. These secondary infections lead to tissue loss, causing the fingers and toes to become deformed and shortened. This happens due to the absorption of cartilage in the body. Skin lesions have decreased sensation to touch, temperature and pain. These lesions do not heal for several months and have a lighter color tone than the natural skin tone.


Untreated leprosy leads to the following complications:

  • Hair loss on the eyebrows and eyelashes
  • Muscle weakness
  • Inability to use hands and feet
  • Chronic nasal congestion
  • Nosebleeds
  • Collapse of nasal septum
  • Inflammation of the iris
  • Glaucoma
  • Blindness
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Infertility

Transmission of Leprosy

The main cause of leprosy is Mycobacterium lepraeand Mycobacterium lepromatosis. It primarily infects the mucous membranes of the nose, skin, peripheral nervous system, eyes and testes.

It has also been identified that there are several genes that make one susceptible to leprosy. Also, people living in cramped conditions with inadequate bedding, contaminated water and have an insufficient diet are at risk of developing the disease.

The transmission of the disease occurs when one is exposed repeatedly to the nasal and mouth droplets of an infected person. It cannot be transmitted sexually and one no longer remains infectious after treatment.


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There are many types of leprosy. However, the doctor will look for the most common symptoms. These include dry scalp, skin lesions, runny nose, muscle weakness, reddish skin, thickening of the facial skin, ear, hands. One may have lost sensation in their fingers and toes and form a flat nose due to collapse of the nasal cartilage.

The doctor will conduct a skin biopsy of the skin lesion, skin sore or the abnormal skin. A skin smear test will be done too. In case of paucibacillary leprosy, no bacteria will be found. In case of multibacillary leprosy, bacteria will be present in the skin smear test.


Today, there are many leprostatic agents available. A daily tablet of dapsone and monthly tablet of rifampicin for six months is recommended for paucibacillary leprosy. In case of multibacillary leprosy, one is given dapsone and clofazimine daily. Ridampicin is given monthly for 12 months.


Treatment is successful in the majority of the cases. Relapse is very low and one is no longer contagious after treatment.

The outlook of the disease is good, if detected early. The sooner one gets treated, the less tissue and cartilage damage they suffer from. When the disease reaches its advanced stage, it causes significant disfigurement and disability. This leads to social stigma and makes it difficult to live life normally. Thus, any unusual skin lesions, patches, sores, etc. should be bought to the notice of the doctor immediately.

Written by: Saptakee sengupta
Date last updated: March 29, 2015