Diagnosis and Treatment
How is the disease diagnosed?
Hansen’s disease can be recognized by appearance of patches of skin that may look lighter or darker than the normal skin. Sometimes the affected skin areas may be reddish. Loss of feeling in these skin patches is common. You may not feel a light touch or a prick with a needle.
To confirm the diagnosis, your doctor will take a sample of your skin or nerve (through a skin or nerve biopsy) to look for the bacteria under the microscope and may also do tests to rule out other skin diseases.
How is the disease treated?
Hansen’s disease is treated with a combination of antibiotics. Typically, 2 or 3 antibiotics are used at the same time. These are dapsone with rifampicin, and clofazimine is added for some types of the disease. This is called multidrug therapy. This strategy helps prevent the development of antibiotic resistance by the bacteria, which may otherwise occur due to length of the treatment.
Treatment usually lasts between one to two years. The illness can be cured if treatment is completed as prescribed.
If you are treated for Hansen’s disease, it’s important to:
- Tell your doctor if you experience numbness or a loss of feeling in certain parts of the body or in patches on the skin. This may be caused by nerve damage from the infection. If you have numbness and loss of feeling, take extra care to prevent injuries that may occur, like burns and cuts.
- Take the antibiotics until your doctor says your treatment is complete. If you stop earlier, the bacteria may start growing again and you may get sick again.
- Tell your doctor if the affected skin patches become red and painful, nerves become painful or swollen, or you develop a fever as these may be complications of Hansen’s disease that may require more intensive treatment with medicines that can reduce inflammation.
If left untreated, the nerve damage can result in paralysis and crippling of hands and feet. In very advanced cases, the person may have multiple injuries due to lack of sensation, and eventually the body may reabsorb the affected digits over time, resulting in the apparent loss of toes and fingers. Corneal ulcers or blindness can also occur if facial nerves are affected, due to loss of sensation of the cornea (outside) of the eye. Other signs of advanced leprosy may include loss of eyebrows and saddle-nose deformity resulting from damage to the nasal septum.
Antibiotics used during the treatment will kill the bacteria that cause leprosy. But while the treatment can cure the disease and prevent it from getting worse, it does not reverse nerve damage or physical disfiguration that may have occurred before the diagnosis. Thus, it is very important that the disease be diagnosed as early as possible, before any permanent nerve damage occurs.
In the U.S., people with Hansen’s disease may be treated at special clinics run by the National Hansen’s Disease ProgramExternal. There are several federally supported outpatient clinicsExternal throughout the U.S. and Puerto Rico.