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Elephantiasis, often incorrectly called elephantitis, is a medical condition characterised by the enlargement and hardening of limbs or body parts due to tissue swelling. It is marked by oedema, hypertrophy, and fibrosis of skin and subcutaneous tissues, primarily due to the obstruction of lymphatic vessels. The condition can also affect the genitalia.

While the term elephantiasis is frequently associated with parasitic worm infections, it can refer to various diseases that cause significant swelling of body parts.

Elephantiasis of the legs due to filariasis.
Elephantiasis of the legs due to filariasis.


Elephantiasis can be caused by several conditions, including:

  • Elephantiasis nostras: This form results from longstanding chronic lymphangitis, an inflammation of the lymphatic vessels.
  • Elephantiasis tropica (lymphatic filariasis): This is caused by parasitic worms, particularly Wuchereria bancrofti. It affects more than 120 million people worldwide, predominantly in Africa and Southeast Asia.
  • Nonfilarial elephantiasis (podoconiosis): This is an immune disease that affects the lymph vessels.
  • Leishmaniasis: A parasitic disease that can cause swelling and tissue damage.
  • Elephantiasis, Grade 3 lymphedema: This type may occur in individuals with breast cancer.
  • Genital elephantiasis: Often a result of lymphogranuloma venereum, a sexually transmitted infection.

Other potential causes include repeated streptococcal infections, lymphadenectomy (surgical removal of lymph nodes), hereditary birth defects, and pretibial myxedema (associated with thyroid disease).


The primary symptom of elephantiasis is significant swelling of the skin and underlying tissues, which can lead to severe disfigurement. This swelling is often accompanied by:

  • Thickening and hardening of the skin
  • Pain and discomfort in the affected areas
  • Restricted movement due to the size and weight of the swollen limbs or body parts
  • Possible secondary infections due to compromised skin integrity


Diagnosis of elephantiasis typically involves a combination of clinical evaluation and laboratory tests. Key steps in the diagnostic process include:

  • Clinical Examination: A thorough assessment of the affected limbs or body parts, noting the extent of swelling, skin changes, and any signs of secondary infection.
  • Blood Tests: These can help identify the presence of parasitic worms, particularly in cases of lymphatic filariasis.
  • Imaging Studies: Ultrasounds, CT scans, or MRIs may be used to assess the extent of lymphatic obstruction and tissue involvement.
  • Biopsy: In some cases, a biopsy of the affected tissue may be performed to rule out other conditions.


Treatment of elephantiasis depends on the underlying cause and the severity of the condition. Common treatment approaches include:

  • Medications: Antiparasitic drugs such as diethylcarbamazine (DEC) or ivermectin are used to treat lymphatic filariasis. Antibiotics may be prescribed for secondary bacterial infections.
  • Lymphatic Drainage Therapy: Manual lymphatic drainage and compression therapy can help reduce swelling and improve lymphatic circulation.
  • Surgery: In severe cases, surgery may be necessary to remove excess tissue or to reconstruct affected areas. This may include procedures such as lymphaticovenous anastomosis or debulking surgeries.
  • Hygiene and Skin Care: Maintaining good hygiene and regular skin care can help prevent secondary infections and manage symptoms.
  • Supportive Care: Physical therapy and the use of compression garments can aid in improving mobility and reducing discomfort.

Self-assessment MCQs (single best answer)

What is the primary characteristic of elephantiasis?

Which parasitic worm is primarily responsible for causing lymphatic filariasis?

Which of the following is NOT a common symptom of elephantiasis?

What is the primary cause of Elephantiasis tropica?

Which diagnostic method is often used to identify the presence of parasitic worms in cases of lymphatic filariasis?

Which of the following treatments is commonly used for lymphatic filariasis?

Nonfilarial elephantiasis, also known as podoconiosis, is primarily caused by:

Genital elephantiasis is often a result of which sexually transmitted infection?

Which of the following is a surgical treatment option for severe cases of elephantiasis?

Which imaging study might be used to assess the extent of lymphatic obstruction in elephantiasis?


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Brilliant videos, thank you.

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