Elephantiasis is a medical term which is used to describe a disease in which the skin thickens in the legs significantly. In males, skin in the the scrotum and genitals often thickens as well. The word “elephantitis” is often used to describe this condition also, but it is derived from a mistaken pronunciation of elephantiasis.
The cause of elephantiasis is a parasitic worm which is transmitted by mosquitoes. The disease itself is rare, since only mosquitoes infected with the parasitic worms themselves can transmit the worms. These worms take up residence in a person’s lymphatic system. Once they infest the lymphatic system, the worms can clog vessels and cause fluid to become trapped in the lower portions of the body. This leads to areas of huge swelling. The larger the worm infestation, the more swelling there is.
There is a form of elephantiasis known as “podoconiosis,” which is not caused by a parasitic worm. The cause of this condition is thought to be related to being in frequent contact with soils containing high levels of sodium and potassium. These types of soils are often found in areas where there has been volcanic activity.
The most common symptoms of elephantiasis are areas of noticeable swelling and skin thickening in the legs. This extremely swollen appearance can vary in severity, and some people can barely walk as a result of their massive legs. Hygiene can become extremely difficult for the person to maintain, and they may experience skin infections as a result.
As far as prevention of the disease, there is an ongoing effort in the African medical community to persuade some people in high risk tropical areas to take Albendazole pills to help treat elephantiasis. While these pills are not effective for everyone all the time (since some people cannot take them if they have allergies or are on other medications which can have harmful interactions with Albendazole), they have been known to help treat elephantiasis.
As recent as 2003, doxycycline, a frequently prescribed antibiotic by doctors, was theorized to be one of the most successful antibiotics at treating parasitic worms which cause elephantiasis. Though not an anti-parasitic medication, doxycycline can destroy symbiotic bacteria which accompany a parasite. Once those bacteria are gone, the worms usually die.
Many doctors also recommend that patients with elephantiasis adhere to a strict schedule of cleaning all areas of their body affected by this condition. There is a theory that many areas of swelling are not affected by just the parasitic worm, but by skin infections which can occur as a result of dermatitis.
Podoconiosis is typically treated by cleaning the affected areas daily with warm water and soap. Over time, the body should be able to heal itself as long as the skin is not coming into contact with the soil which can cause this condition. In severe cases, infection could develop. Doctors can usually prescribe an antibiotic to rid the body of infection. People who live in areas where such soil is present are encouraged to wear shoes to avoid developing this condition