Hansen’s Disease

An infection, also known as leprosy, that affects nerves and skin, causing numbness and disfigurement

  • Age, gender, genetics, and lifestyle are not significant factors

Hansen’s disease, commonly known as leprosy, is a long-term infection caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium leprae, which damages the skin and nerves. The limbs and face, in particular, may be affected. Infection is thought to be transmitted in airborne droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes and through skin contact. The disease is not easily transmitted from person to person. Only people who live in prolonged, close contact with an infected person are at risk of infection. The disease is rare in developed countries and is most common in Asia, Africa, and South America. Hansen’s disease develops very slowly, the first symptoms often appearing more than 5 years after infection and sometimes not for as long as 20 years. Initially, nerve damage causes numbness of the skin on the face, hands, and feet. The affected skin may also become thickened and discoloured. Hansen’s disease is infectious only while these early symptoms are developing. Lack of sensation may lead to injury or even loss of fingers and toes.

Diagnosis is based on the symptoms and examination of a sample of skin tissue to identify the bacterium. Treatment with antibiotics, for up to 2 years, prevents further nerve damage and reduces areas of thickened skin. With early diagnosis and treatment, Hansen’s disease is curable. However, any nerve damage that has already occurred is irreversible.

Hansen’s disease

At the age of 7, this girl had thickened facial skin due to Hansen’s disease. After 2 years of treatment with antibiotics, her appearance had improved dramatically.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

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