Leprosy (Hansen's Disease)

  • Medical Author:
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

Bacterial Infections 101 Pictures Slideshow
Person with Leprosy

Is Leprosy Contagious?

Leprosy (Hansen's Disease) is contagious.

Leprosy is contagious but is considered to be only mildly contagious. However, acquisition of the disease usually occurs after long-term (months to years) contact with an untreated individual with the disease. It is passed from person to person via droplets from the nose and mouth during close and frequent contact with an untreated individual with leprosy.

Leprosy (Hansen's disease) facts

  • Leprosy is a slowly developing, progressive disease that damages the skin and nervous system.
  • Leprosy is caused by an infection with Mycobacterium leprae or M. lepromatosis bacteria.
  • Early symptoms begin in cooler areas of the body and include loss of sensation.
  • Signs of leprosy are painless ulcers, skin lesions of hypopigmented macules (flat, pale areas of skin), and eye damage (dryness, reduced blinking). Later, large ulcerations, loss of digits, skin nodules, and facial disfigurement may develop.
  • The infection is thought to be spread person to person by nasal secretions or droplets. Leprosy is rarely transmitted from chimpanzees, mangabey monkeys, and nine-banded armadillos to humans by droplets or direct contact.
  • Susceptibility to getting leprosy may be due to certain human genes.
  • Antibiotics are used in the treatment of leprosy.

What is leprosy?

Leprosy is a disease mainly caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium leprae, which causes damage to the skin and the peripheral nervous system. The disease develops slowly (from six months to 40 years) and results in skin lesions and deformities, most often affecting the cooler places on the body (for example, eyes, nose, earlobes, hands, feet, and testicles). The skin lesions and deformities can be very disfiguring and are the reason that infected individuals historically were considered outcasts in many cultures. Although human-to-human transmission is the primary source of infection, three other species can carry and (rarely) transfer M. leprae to humans: chimpanzees, mangabey monkeys, and nine-banded armadillos. The disease is termed a chronic granulomatous disease, similar to tuberculosis, because it produces inflammatory nodules (granulomas) in the skin and nerves over time.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 8/12/2016

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