Whipple Disease: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment


A rare bacterial infection, which most often affects your joints and digestive system, Whipple disease impairs the breakdown of foods and hampers the body's ability to absorb nutrients . It can also affect other organs such as the heart, brain and eyes. If proper treatment is not received, it can turn fatal. Timely medical intervention is therefore essential.

About 40 per cent of people with this illness show neurological symptoms such as abnormalities of the eye and facial muscle movements, dementia, seizures, memory loss, weakness and headaches .

Read on to know how this rare infectious disease can cause multiple infections in different organs and its treatment possibilities.

Being a multi-system infectious bacterial disease, Whipple disease interferes with the body's ability to metabolize fats. It is caused by the bacterium Tropheryma whipplei . This illness is named after George Whipple, who discovered the bacteria causing this disease in 1907. Although it can affect the heart, joints, brain, eyes and lungs, it usually tends to occur in the gastrointestinal system.

It has been found that this illness is more common in men and also the neurological symptoms are found to be more common in individuals who have severe abdominal disease. This ailment can be treated with antibiotics, but sometimes patients might relapse and need long-term treatment. 87 per cent of people with Whipple disease are men aged between 40 and 60 years .

Although the symptoms vary widely among patients, the most common signs of this disease are as follows :

Sometimes endocarditis is the only symptom of Whipple disease. There can be severe breathlessness and swelling of the legs due to fluid build-up. The heart becomes inflamed and the body is unable to pump fluids through the body.

The following signs occur when Whipple disease progresses to the central nervous system :

As mentioned, Whipple disease is caused by a type of bacterium called Tropheryma whipplei. This bacterium is said to affect the mucosal lining of the small intestine followed by the formation of small lesions within the intestinal wall . This illness also damages the villi that line the small intestine. Research is still underway as to how the bacteria originates or how it spreads to humans.

Few researchers say that the people who develop this disease have a genetic defect in their immune system response, which makes them more prone to becoming sick when exposed to this bacteria. However, Whipple disease is not very common. It affects about only 1 in 1 million people .

It has been found that this condition is more common in farmers and people who work outdoors, especially the ones who have frequent contact with soil and sewage waste water. It is worth noting that this disease is not transmitted from person to person.

Several tests and exams may be conducted to diagnose this illness. These include [9] the following.

At times, on seeing the results, your general healthcare practitioner might refer you to a gastroenterologist. The chances of the following common conditions with almost similar symptoms are ideally first eliminated, before beginning the treatment procedure :

In some cases, a biopsy might be conducted to reach a conclusive decision about the diagnosis of Whipple disease. A tissue sample is collected from the lining of the small intestine . The tissue is examined under a microscope for the presence of disease-causing bacteria and their lesions.

The ideal treatment methodology followed is with the use of antibiotics to destroy the bacteria causing the infection. The treatment is long-term and usually lasts for a year or two . The people who have not suffered any brain or nervous system complications usually recover completely after a full course of antibiotics.

In case a person relapses during treatment, the antibiotics might need to be altered as the patient might have developed a resistance to the drugs . Doctors prefer prescribing antibiotics that not just wipe out infections of the intestinal tract but also cross a layer of tissue around the brain. This is to eliminate bacteria that might have entered the brain and central nervous system.

The ideal treatment plan for Whipple disease is with the use of intravenous ceftriaxone or penicillin for the first two to four weeks. This can be followed by a long-term oral antibiotic course of sulfamethoxazole-trimethoprim. The symptoms should improve within one to two weeks of starting the antibiotic treatment.

As Whipple disease causes nutrient-absorption difficulties, your doctor might recommend taking vitamin and mineral supplements to ensure adequate nutrition in the body.

Usually, complications arise due to malnutrition (which happens when the villi in the small intestine are damaged). Damage to the villi impairs nutrient absorption . Nutritional deficiencies are highly common in people with Whipple disease and hence causes extreme fatigue, weakness, joint pain and weight loss.

If not treated on time, Whipple disease falls under the category of being a progressively fatal disease. In spite of being rare, several associated deaths have been reported. The deaths are usually due to late diagnosis and delayed treatment. The primary cause of death is the spread of the infection to the central nervous system. This is an irreversible damage.

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