Leprosy (Hansen’s Disease)

Leprosy is a chronic bacterial infection caused by Mycobacterium leprae. It is a slowly evolving infection that may take decades before symptoms appear, and it mostly affects skin and the nerves in the hands and feet. It is a rare disease in the United States.

Prevention

The way leprosy spreads from person to person is not completely understood, but may be through droplets from an infected person when they cough or sneeze. It is believed that it takes prolonged and direct contact with an infected person to get leprosy. Leprosy is not passed by casual contact, like hand shaking or sharing a meal.

Symptoms

Typical symptoms of leprosy include:

  • Rash that is flat, discolored, and may have decreased sensation
  • Nodules (lumps)
  • Ulcers
  • Loss of eyebrows or lashes

Leprosy attacks the nerves and if left untreated may cause skin numbness, muscle weakness, paralysis, and vision problems. Disfigurement is another complication of untreated leprosy.

Diagnosis and Treatment

The diagnosis of leprosy is made by a health care provider, usually a dermatologist, with expertise in recognizing the disease. Often a biopsy (small piece of skin) is taken and examined under a microscope, but this is not always necessary to diagnose the disease. Treatment is available, effective and requires more than one antibiotic for several months.

Leprosy is more common in some countries outside the United States.

The best way to prevent the spread of leprosy is early diagnosis and treatment. If you have an unusual skin rash, particularly one with numbness, and a history of living in a country with high rates of leprosy, you should consult your health care provider. If you share a home with someone who has leprosy, you should consult your health care provider.