Elephantiasis: What to Know

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on August 19, 2022
3 min read

Elephantiasis, also known as lymphatic filariasis, is a very rare condition that’s spread by mosquitoes.

The common name is often used because if you have it, your arms and legs can swell and become much bigger than they should be. Your sex organs and breasts may also swell up. The affected skin can thicken and harden to look something like an elephant’s skin.

It’s more common in tropical or subtropical areas.

If you have it, there are medicines and treatments to help with the swelling and discomfort.

Usually, to get elephantiasis, you would have to be bitten by a lot of mosquitoes over a long time, in a country where certain types of roundworms are known to exist.

It starts when mosquitoes infected with the roundworm larvae bite you. The tiny larvae survive in your bloodstream and grow. They finish maturing in your lymph system. They can live there for years and cause a lot of damage to your lymph system. This is what causes the swelling.

You may not know you have elephantiasis until you notice the swelling. Not only will those body parts begin to look bulky and lumpy with stiff, tough skin, there is also pain in the swollen area.

You may also have chills, fever, and just feel bad all over.

Your doctor can find out if you have elephantiasis by giving you a physical exam. They will ask about your medical history, and whether you’ve traveled to a place where you were more likely to have gotten elephantiasis.

They also will have blood tests done to see if roundworms are in your bloodstream. These tests need to be done at night, because that’s when these parasites are active.

There are medicines to treat elephantiasis. Your doctor may give you one called diethylcarbamazine (DEC). You’ll take it once a year. It will kill the microscopic worms in your bloodstream.

Another way to treat elephantiasis is to use DEC in combination with a medicine called ivermectin. This is also taken once a year, and the combination has shown better long-term results.

If you have elephantiasis symptoms, there are some things you can do on your own to ease them:

  • Wash and dry the swollen areas daily.
  • Use moisturizers.
  • Check for wounds and use medicated cream on any sore spots.
  • Exercise, and walk when possible.
  • If your arms or legs are swollen, keep them elevated when you’re lying down or seated.

You may also be able to wrap the affected areas tightly to prevent them from getting worse, but you should check with your doctor before doing this.

Sometimes, surgery may be needed to relieve pressure in very swollen areas, like the scrotum.

Elephantiasis can be disabling. Sometimes it’s hard to move the affected body parts, which means it could be difficult to work. It might even be hard to get around in your home.

You might also worry about how your condition looks to other people. This can cause anxiety and depression. If you have elephantiasis and want information about support groups, ask your doctor. You can also go online to find resources that might help.