Leishmaniasis is a parasitic disease spread by the bite of the sandfly.
There are different forms of leishmaniasis.
- Cutaneous leishmaniasis affects the skin and mucus membranes. Skin sores usually start at the site of the sandfly bite. They can last for months or years before healing on their own. In a few people, sores may develop on mucus membranes.
- Systemic, or visceral leishmaniasis affects the entire body. This form occurs 2 - 8 months after a person is bitten by the sandfly. Most people do not remember having a skin sore. This form can lead to deadly complications. The parasites damage the immune system by decreasing the numbers of disease-fighting cells.
Cases of leishmaniasis have been reported on all continents except Australia and Antarctica. In the Americas, leishmaniasis can be found in Mexico and South America. Leishmaniasis has been reported in military personnel returning from the Persian Gulf.
Cutaneous leishmaniasis affects the skin and sometimes the mucus membranes. Symptoms may include:
- Skin sores, which may become a skin ulcer that heals very slowly
- Ulcers and wearing away (erosion) in the mouth, tongue, gums, lips, nose, and inner nose
- Stuffy nose, runny nose, and nosebleeds
- Breathing difficulty
- Swallowing difficulty
Systemic visceral infection in children usually begins suddenly with vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and cough. Adults usually have a fever for 2 weeks to 2 months, along with symptoms such as fatigue, weakness, and appetite loss. Weakness increases as the disease gets worse.
Other symptoms of systemic visceral leishmaniasis may include:
- Belly area (abdominal) discomfort
- Cough (children)
- Diarrhea (children)
- Fever that lasts for weeks; may come and go in cycles
- Night sweats
- Scaly, gray, dark, ashen skin
- Thinning hair
- Vomiting (children)
- Weight loss
Exams and Tests
A physical exam may show signs of an enlarged spleen, liver, and lymph nodes. The patient may have been bitten by sandflies, or was in an area known for leishmaniasis.
Tests that may be done to diagnose the condition include:
- Biopsy of the spleen and culture
- Bone marrow biopsy and culture
- Direct agglutination assay
- Indirect immunofluorescent antibody test
- Lymph node biopsy and culture
- Montenegro skin test
- Skin biopsy
Other tests that may be done include:
Medicines called antimony-containing compounds are the main drugs used to treat leishmaniasis. These include:
- Meglumine antimonate
- Sodium stibogluconate
Other drugs that may be used include:
- Amphotericin B
Plastic surgery may be needed to correct the disfigurement caused by sores on the face (cutaneous leishmaniasis). Patients with drug-resistant viral leishmaniasis may need to have their spleen removed (splenectomy).
Cure rates are high with the proper medicine. Patients should get treated before damage to the immune system occurs. Cutaneous leishmaniasis may lead to disfigurement.
Death is usually caused by complications (such as other infections), rather than from the disease itself. Death often occurs within 2 years.
- Deadly infections due to immune system damage
- Disfigurement of the face
- Bleeding (hemorrhage)
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Contact your health care provider if you have symptoms of leishmaniasis after visiting an area where the disease is known to occur.
Preventing sandfly bites is the most immediate form of protection. You can prevent a bite by:
- Wearing insect repellent
- Wearing protective clothing
- Screening windows
- Putting fine mesh netting around the bed (in areas where the disease occurs)
Public health measures to reduce the sandfly population and animal reservoirs are important. There are no preventive vaccines or drugs for leishmaniasis.
Jeronimo SMB, DeQueiroz-Sousa A, Pearson RD. Leishmaniasis. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier;2007:chap 369.
Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine; and Jatin M. Vyas, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School, Assistant in Medicine, Division of Infectious Disease, Department of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.