10 Early Signs Of Leprosy

Leprosy is an infectious disease that has affected people throughout history and one which is marked by painful and disfiguring symptoms. Throughout history, people with leprosy have been treated with fear and disdain with many cultures banning or shunning the victims of this disease. That stigma has slowed the study of the disease, since, throughout much of history, treatment was a low priority for some cultures. The ancient civilizations of China, Egypt, and India feared the disease, presuming it to be incurable and highly contagious.

In truth, leprosy isn’t as contagious as the myths suggest. The disease can’t be transferred from person to person, unless there’s repeated close contact with leakage from the nose and mouth of a leper. Additionally, the disease most often affects children, so it’s rare for an adult to contract the disease. The World Health Organization reports that there are 180,000 cases of leprosy worldwide today with most cases occurring in Africa and Asia. In the United States, approximately 100 individuals are diagnosed with leprosy each year. Most incidences occur in the southern states, California, Hawaii, and outlaying U.S. territories.

The disease is caused by exposure to Mycobacterium leprae (M. leprae), a bacteria that grows slowly in the body, once a person has been exposed. The condition may also be called Hansen’s disease, named after the scientist credited for discovering M. leprae in 1873. Since the bacteria grows slowly, it can take three to five years for symptoms to develop, after a person has been exposed. In some cases, it can even take up to 20 years for symptoms to present. For that reason, it can be nearly impossible to know where or when exposure to the M. leprae bacteria occurred. This slow incubation period is also the reason it’s important to be aware of the following early signs of infection.

1. Numbness

One major symptom of leprosy is a feeling of numbness in the affected areas. This primarily begins in the hands and feet, spreading to the arms and legs. It’s characterized by a loss of feeling or a loss of sensation in those parts of the body. The numbness may vary in feeling from area to area, since just one nerve may be affected or multiple nerves may go numb.

The sensation of numbness can be more significant, affecting an entire side of the body at once. In more extreme cases, it can affect both sides of the body at the same time. It will vary, because the bacteria may attack different nerves at different times, causing damage or irritation to the individual nerves. The nerves affected are called the peripheral nerves, because they’re the nerve branches located away from the brain and spinal cord. As a primary symptom, numbness plays a part in causing many of the other symptoms to manifest. For this reason, prolonged numbness should be reported to your doctor as soon as possible. Additionally, if the numbness affects an entire limb or larger area of the body, you should seek medical attention immediately. As with any disease, early diagnosis is the key to more efficient treatment of the underlying disease.