Medical Definition of Elephantiasis

  • Medical Author:
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Reviewed on 12/11/2018

Elephantiasis: Lymphatic filariasis, a mosquito-borne parasitic disease caused by tiny thread-like worms that live in the human lymph system. Best known from dramatic photos of people with grossly enlarged or swollen arms and legs.

The parasitic worms responsible for the disease include Wuchereria bancrofti, Brugia malayi, and B. timori. The disease currently affects 120 million people worldwide, and 40 million of these people have serious disease.

When an infected female mosquito bites a person, she may inject the worm larvae, called microfilariae, into the blood. The microfilariae reproduce and spread throughout the bloodstream, where they can live for many years. Often disease symptoms do not appear until years after infection. As the parasites accumulate in the blood vessels, they can restrict the circulation and cause fluid to build up in surrounding tissues. The most common, visible signs of infection are excessively enlarged arms, legs, genitalia, and breasts.

Medicines to treat lymphatic filariasis are most effective when used soon after infection. The disease is difficult to detect early. Improved treatment and laboratory tests are needed. A vaccine is not yet available.

Also see Lymphatic filariasis.

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Reviewed on 12/11/2018