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Leprosy Overview

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Forms of Leprosy continued...

Tuberculoid. A mild, less severe form of leprosy. People with this type have only one or a few patches of flat, pale-colored skin (paucibacillary leprosy). The affected area of skin may feel numb because of nerve damage underneath. Tuberculoid leprosy is less contagious than other forms.

Lepromatous. A more severe form of the disease. It has widespread skin bumps and rashes (multibacillary leprosy), numbness, and muscle weakness. The nose, kidneys, and male reproductive organs may also be affected. It is more contagious than tuberculoid leprosy.

Borderline. People with this type of leprosy have symptoms of both the tuberculoid and lepromatous forms. 

How Is Leprosy Diagnosed?

If you have a suspicious skin sore, your doctor will remove a small sample of the abnormal skin and send it to a lab to be examined. This is called a skin biopsy. A skin smear test may also be done. With paucibacillary leprosy, no bacteria will be detected. In contrast, bacteria are expected to be found on a skin smear test from a person with multibacillary leprosy.

How Is Leprosy Treated?

Leprosy can be cured. In the last two decades, more than 14 million people with leprosy have been cured. The World Health Organization provides free treatment for all people with leprosy.

Treatment depends on the type of leprosy that you have. Antibiotics are used to treat the infection. Long-term treatment with two or more antibiotics is recommended, usually from six months to a year. People with severe leprosy may need to take antibiotics longer. Antibiotics cannot treat the nerve damage.

Anti-inflammatory drugs are used to control swelling related to leprosy. This may include steroids, such as prednisone.

Patients with leprosy may also be given thalidomide, a potent medication that suppresses the body's immune system. It helps treat leprosy skin nodules. Thalidomide is known to cause severe, life-threatening birth defects and should never be taken by pregnant women.

Leprosy Complications

Without treatment, leprosy can permanently damage your skin, nerves, arms, legs, feet, and eyes.

Complications of leprosy can include:

  • Blindness or glaucoma.
  • Disfiguration of the face (including permanent swelling, bumps, and lumps).
  • Erectile dysfunction and infertility in men.
  • Kidney failure.
  • Muscle weakness that leads to claw-like hands or an inability to flex the feet.
  • Permanent damage to the inside of the nose, which can lead to nosebleeds and a chronic, stuffy nose.
  • Permanent damage to the nerves outside the brain and spinal cord, including those in the arms, legs, and feet.

Nerve damage can lead to a dangerous loss of feeling. A person with leprosy-related nerve damage may not feel pain when the hands, legs, or feet are cut, burned, or otherwise injured.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on April 23, 2013
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