Elephantiasis – Causes, Symptoms & Treatment


Elephantiasis is an abnormal enlargement of a part of the body caused by a blockage of lymph . Most often the legs or external genitals are affected. The disease is either caused by a worm infection or is congenital.

What is elephantiasis?

Elephantiasis is a collective term for diseases that are based on a disturbance of the lymphatic drainage. You can take the term elephantiasis literally if you want to imagine what elephantiasis looks like. Those affected really make an elephantine impression.

Arms and legs in particular are affected by elephantiasis. A sometimes gigantic, soft swelling occurs , which can still be dented at the beginning of elephantiasis. Over the years, the swelling hardens. Then the disease cannot be reversed.


Around every fifth elephantiasis patient is born with a weakness of the lymphatic vessels. In healthy people, the lymphatic vessels transport the body fluid that has left the blood vessels back to the heart like a drainage system. If, on the other hand, the lymph vessels are defective and have become impermeable, body fluid builds up and the affected part of the body swells.

Congenital elephantiasis does not always appear at birth. It can even appear after the age of 35. In most cases of elephantiasis, another disease leads to occlusion of the lymphatic vessels.

As a rule, these are stubborn and protracted infectious diseases such as erysipelas , herpes simplex on the lips, leprosy and what is known as filariasis, a tropical disease. In some cases, a cancerous growth is responsible for the destruction of the lymphatic vessels. Lymph vessels can also be damaged by surgery.

Tropical elephantiosis or lymphatic filariasis is common in the tropics. The worms settle in the human lymphatic vessels and lymph nodes. Female worms lay hundreds of eggs. Insects ingest the larvae that develop from the eggs during a blood meal. Through a sting, the larvae are transmitted to another person via the sting canal.

Symptoms, Ailments & Signs

The first symptoms usually appear as reddening and swelling of the skin on the arms and legs. Inflammatory allergic reactions are triggered by the worms growing in the lymphatic system. Associated with bouts of fever, arms, legs, testicles and female breasts swell with general malaise .

The infections mentioned must heal in any case. If there is swelling on the arms and legs afterwards, but also on other parts of the body, an examination is definitely necessary. Since many very different underlying diseases can lead to elephantiasis, the precise physical examination and examination of the medical history are at the beginning of the diagnosis. This usually gives rise to a suspicion that the doctor can then specifically investigate.

If you experience swelling in your arms and legs after a trip to the tropics, you must definitely make your doctor aware of your trip. This can be an important clue to finding a diagnosis. Edema in the legs is usually caused by heart disease or vein problems. However, this symptom is not part of elephantiasis.


If the underlying disease can be treated in time, then there is a good chance that the elephantiasis will disappear again. If the swelling persists or if the cause cannot be eliminated, treatment may be necessary for life. Elephantiasis in itself is an unpleasant disease, but in most cases it is otherwise harmless.

When should you go to the doctor?

If redness, itching and swelling of the skin on the arms and legs are noticed, a doctor should be consulted. At the latest, when further symptoms of elephantiasis appear, this requires immediate clarification. For example, anyone who experiences unusual bouts of fever and a general feeling of being unwell that cannot be attributed to any other cause must definitely discuss this with their family doctor . This applies in particular if the symptoms occur after a trip to the tropics or after overcoming cancer.

While the disease itself is not life-threatening, the complications can lead to serious health problems. For this reason alone, if you suspect elephantiasis, you should speak to a doctor as soon as possible. If the symptoms mentioned occur in connection with another infectious disease, it is best to contact the responsible doctor. The same applies if edema is noticed on the legs. These can occur as side effects and indicate that the elephantiasis is already more advanced – an immediate visit to the doctor is advisable.


Elephantiasis (lymphatic congestion) cannot be treated curatively. With suitable therapeutic measures, the backlog of lymph fluids and the associated swelling can be controlled. If the elephantiasis has been triggered by filariae and worm larvae, the doctor first tries to kill the pathogens by administering various medications or to keep the pathogen load as small as possible.

Complications can then be seen in the side effects of the respective medication. The swelling in the extremities caused by elephantiasis can only be treated by consistently wearing compression stockings and using lymphatic drainage frequently. If neither is done, the swelling becomes so massive that the patient is severely restricted in his daily life.

Massive swelling of the legs can sometimes lead to loss of mobility. The treatment of elephantiasis is very time-consuming for the patient and, despite the considerable effort, not always successful. In addition, wearing compression stockings and bandages does not meet today’s fashion requirements.

As a result, many patients not only suffer from elephantiasis itself, but also from the treatment of the same. Since not all services are covered by health insurance, patients often face financial problems.

Treatment & Therapy

Of course, any underlying disease that may be present, which has usually existed for months or years, must first be treated effectively. Swelling in the arms and legs can be relieved with compression stockings that are made to measure.

In addition, lymphatic drainage (a special massage technique) and decongestant medication have a soothing effect. In recent years, microsurgical transplantations of lymphatic vessels have been carried out with increasing success.

Filaria and larvae can be killed with drugs. Sufficient hygiene and disinfection is essential to prevent bacterial colonization of the wounds. Pressure bandages can also reduce swelling. However, a real cure or therapy is not possible with elephantiasis.

Outlook & Forecast

Elephantiasis is not curable. However, since it is not a uniform disease, there is no uniform course. In many people, however, the symptoms can be treated in such a way that the swelling decreases. The therapy usually consists of the use of manual lymphatic drainage. With the help of lymphatic drainage, the patient can lead a normal life in most cases. However, if the therapy is stopped, the lymph will immediately congest again and the limbs or genitals will swell enormously again.

The treated patients suffer from overstretched skin, which can only be corrected by plastic surgery. However, a complete reconstruction of the skin structure is not possible. In severe cases of elephantiasis, manual lymphatic drainage is no longer of any help either. Then an amputation of affected limbs may be necessary.

The further prognosis depends on the underlying disease. A successful symptomatic therapy of elephantiasis can only succeed if the underlying disease is also treated successfully. This applies in particular to infections that lead to elephantiasis or to genetic causes of lymphatic congestion.

Forms of elephantiasis caused by tumors have a poorer prognosis. Successful lymphatic drainage is not possible here and surgical removal of the tumors in elephantiasis only increases the further spread of the cancer throughout the body. With a bit of luck, only an amputation of the affected limbs can have a life-saving effect.


Effective prevention of elephantiasis tropica includes the following measures: Killing mosquitoes by spraying and administering antibiotics to prevent infection. In addition, it is important to kill the microfilariae circulating in the blood with medication, and with the help of (4) pressure bandages, swelling can be reduced. In borderline cases, only surgical removal of the infected tissue can help.

Compression stockings can only be effective in congenital elephantiasis if they are actually worn. There are often cosmetic reasons why the stockings are in the closet. But this is short-sighted. If the swelling is not treated in time, it can lead to hardening, which can then no longer be treated. If you have elephantiasis, you should put your feet up as often as possible.


Immediate treatment by a doctor is always necessary for elephantiasis. Since this disease cannot heal itself, a doctor should always be consulted very early on when the first signs appear. As a rule, the patient with elephantiasis does not have any special measures and options for aftercare.

For this reason, the focus of this disease is always on early detection with further treatment. The treatment itself is usually carried out with the help of compression stockings. Especially with children, parents should ensure that these stockings are worn regularly and correctly so that further complications do not arise. In some cases, however, surgical interventions are necessary.

In this case strict bed rest is to be maintained afterwards. The affected person must not exert themselves unnecessarily and must not carry out any sporting or stressful activities. A complete cure of elephantiasis is not always possible. Care provided by your own family or friends can also have a positive effect on the course of the disease. It is not uncommon for contact with other elephantiasis patients to be useful.

You can do that yourself

It is important to treat the edema regularly, especially in everyday life, in order to avoid pain and secondary diseases. Above all, this includes sensible movement. Sports such as water aerobics, i.e. aqua jogging, aqua cycling or aqua aerobics, in particular, support the lymphatic system to drain the fluid. Courses are regularly offered in swimming pools or therapy facilities. In some cases, health insurance companies also cover the costs.

The water exerts pressure on the body, which decreases as you go up. In this way, the lymph can be supported during transport. In addition, the joints are relieved and calories are burned, which leads to a gentle weight loss and thus increases the freedom of movement. However, those affected must exercise at least twice a week in order to achieve meaningful results. Compression clothing is worn for this purpose. The combination of movement and pressure allows the tissue fluid to drain better and venous blood to be transported out of the legs.

Skin care is also important in elephantiasis. Because the skin barrier is no longer functional due to the constant swelling. This allows bacteria and viruses to penetrate faster and cause infections. To avoid this, perfumed products should be avoided. Natural, mild lotions and creams containing oils and aloe vera work well on the edema area. Regular care prevents infections. Dry skin can be cared for with urea , lactic acid and sorbitol. Products with mineral oils should be avoided.

Lisa Newlon
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Hello! I am Lisa Newlon, and I am a medical writer and researcher with over 10 years of experience in the healthcare industry. I have a Master’s degree in Medicine, and my deep understanding of medical terminology, practices, and procedures has made me a trusted source of information in the medical world.