Elephantiasis – Causes, Symptoms, Treatment

Elephantiasis refers to the massive enlargement of certain body parts such as the arms, legs, breasts and genitalia. The increase in the sizes of these parts is so humongous that they are described as elephantoid, thus the name elephantiasis. This is the result of the thickening and coagulation of the skin and surrounding tissues. This should not be referred to as “elephantitis”, as this literally means “inflammation of the elephant.” The proper term medical practitioners use to describe this disease is elephantiasis which is caused by the podoconiosis or filariasis.

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The cause of elephantiasis is due to the three kinds of thread-like worms that are visible only through the microscope. These are the Brugia timori, Brugia malayi and Wuchereria bancrofti. Amongst the three worms, Wuchereria bancrofti caused ninety percent of the total cases of this disease. Other causes include hereditary transfer from parent to child; surgery used to prevent the spreading of cancer which is the abstraction of lymph nodes; and recurring streptococcal infection. In most of the cases, the disease develops on the arms and legs, the genital organs – scrotum in males and external genitals and breasts in females. Elephantiasis is caused by the worms transported by female mosquitoes. Although in fact, it is the result of a complex chemistry and interaction of the worm, the immune response of the individual affected and the number of disorders and infections that will ensue.

The disease typically appears in various tropical places and also in Africa. The worms that can live in the lymphatic system of the human body are the adult ones only. The blockage of the lymphatic vessels results to the swelling of the lower torso commonly on the genitals and the legs. It is not absolutely clear if the swelling is caused by the parasite itself or by the reaction of the immune system to the parasite.

There are cases that this disease happens even without parasitic infection. This non-parasitic type of the disease is termed as podoconiosis or nonfilarial elephantiasis and the areas with highest occurrences of this type are recorded in Ethiopia, Egypt, Sudan, Burundi, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. The area which is most affected is Ethiopia with a count of up to 6 percent of the total population having the disease. The cause of podoconiosis is constant exposure to irritant soils particularly red clays with high concentration of alkali metals like potassium and sodium and linked to various volcanic activities.


The symptoms of elephantiasis are the result of the obstruction of the lymphatic system by the worms. When the obstruction is already big enough, the back pressure of the lymphatic channels creates an enlargement of superficial vessels which leads to severe swelling. If the individual experiencing this kind of symptoms do not seek medical help as soon as possible and ignores it, the area affected will grow larger until reaches gigantic proportions. Other symptoms the patient will experience are:

• Repeated occurrence of fever

• Headaches

• Chills

• Skin ulcers

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• Joint and bone pain

• Red streaks seen along the leg and arm

• Vomiting


Elephantiasis may be confirmed through microscopic examination of the blood as it may reveal the existence of the microfilariae. Although there are many cases where there is no presence of microfilariae in the blood especially if the patient has been infected for a very long time. Thus, the absence of microfilariae does not guarantee that there is no infection associated with the disease. If the doctor does not find anything worthy in the blood that will point to the disease, other clinical tests are conducted including urine check.


According to various medical practitioners the world is on the right track in preventing people from acquiring the disease. They remain hopeful that the disease will be eliminated by year 2020. There are already records that show that the drive was able to prevent more than 6 million children from acquiring the disease. While in more than 9 million cases, the progress of the infection was halted. With podoconiosis, there should be an awareness to be implemented before successfully eliminating them since the disease is not listed or part of the work of the WHO and has not appeared on the list of Neglected Tropical Disease.

To avoid elephantiasis as much as possible, try to do the following:

• Doctors know a lot about infections caused by mosquito carriers, so ask them about the best preventive measures when you travel to places with plenty of lymphatic filariasis cases.

• Always keep your surroundings clean to prevent the infestation of mosquitoes.

• If the area you are going to spend the night in is open, use a bed net to prevent mosquitoes from swarming in and apply mosquito repellent lotions on your body to prevent mosquito bites.

There are certain food supplements that are recommended in order to prevent the development of elephantiasis:

• Guava tea – this tea contains a strong antibiotic and antiviral effect.

• Vitamin C, Bee Propolis and Garlic – these three help boost the immune system and also has strong antibiotic effect.

• Aloe Vera gel or juice – this has natural antibiotic content which helps strengthen the capillary walls. It also has anti-inflammatory and pain inhibiting properties.

There is no vaccine to help prevent the disease from developing; however, efforts are being made to develop one. Medical professionals have made good progress with this endeavor so they expect that a vaccine will come out soon.

The treatment for elephantiasis is different from one person to another depending on the location where they were infected. The albendazole is used with ivermectin in the sub-Saharan Africa to treat the illness. While in other areas around the world, the albendazole is used together with diethylcarbamazine. To totally eradicate this disease, geo-targeting treatments are applied. For elephantiasis affecting the hydrocele and scrotum, surgery is a viable option. For infection affecting the legs, however, surgical treatment is not so effective.

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