Whipple’s Disease: Symptoms, Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments 

Photo Courtesy: andresr/iStock

Whipple’s disease (or Whipple disease) is a bacterial infection that affects your digestive system. It makes it harder for your body to get the necessary nutrients from the food and drinks in your diet. It’s a rare condition caused by a type of bacteria found in soil and water. Anyone can get Whipple’s disease at any age, but most cases happen in males over 50. This article will explain what causes Whipple’s Disease, its symptoms, and its treatment.

How Your Digestive System Works

To better understand Whipple’s disease, you need to learn how the digestive system works. 

Your gastrointestinal (GI) tract includes the stomach, small intestine, large intestine (colon), rectum, and anus. The entire digestive system also includes the pancreas, gallbladder, and liver. Your GI system processes what you eat and drink, then eliminates the waste products. Other organs absorb the nutrients used throughout your body for growth, energy, and good health.

The organs that make up the GI tract are hollow and connect to each other to form a long winding tube that starts at your mouth and continues to the anus at the bottom. Whipple’s disease starts in the small intestine. It’s very long, about 22 feet, and uses healthy bacteria that normally live inside it to digest food and drinks from your daily diet. 

Whipple’s disease is caused by bacteria that damage your intestine and make it harder to absorb nutrients that would normally be digested. When Whipple disease causes diarrhea, weakness and weight loss often follow. Eventually, your heart and other organs can be affected. 

What Are the Symptoms of Whipple’s Disease?

Whipple’s disease symptoms aren’t usually noticed immediately after infection, and sometimes they take years to develop. 

Whipple’s disease can affect several parts of the body: 

  • Brain
  • Heart
  • Joints
  • Lungs
  • Eyes

Common Symptoms include: 

  • Diarrhea
  • Difficulty absorbing food and nutrients from intestines [not sure this is a symptom. Gas? Cramping?]
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Joint pain or stiffness, usually in larger areas, like the knees
  • Stomach pain after eating

Other Symptoms and signs of Whipple’s Disease:

  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Chest pain
  • Fluid retention in the chest
  • Weakness
  • Anemia
  • Seizures
  • Skin darkening in areas exposed to sunlight
  • Vision changes
  • Memory problems
  • Vitamin and mineral deficiencies (vitamins D and K, calcium, and magnesium)

Complications of Whipple’s Disease

Complications of Whipple’s disease can involve different organs and systems in your body. When fluid gathers around the lungs and heart, it presses against the lungs, making it painful and harder to breathe normally. Your heart can be affected by abnormal blood flow and swelling. Your doctor will carefully monitor these problems to decide how to treat each condition.

What Causes Whipple’s Disease?

Whipple’s disease is a “rare disease” in the U.S. because it affects fewer than 3,000 people at any given time. Researchers have found bacteria (Tropheryma whipplei)in the intestines of people with Whipple’s disease. Scientists don’t know how the organisms enter your body and cause disease. People can carry the bacteria without feeling any symptoms. Some scientists believe that immune system problems may lead to developing symptoms. Whipple disease isn’t contagious, like the flu, so you can’t catch it from another person. Risk factors include being male and over age 50.

Whipple’s Disease Diagnosis

Diagnosing Whipple’s disease involves physical examinations, procedures, and tests. Since Whipple’s disease is so rare, doctors will first want to rule out other conditions that could cause stomach pain, diarrhea, and weight loss. They will also ask questions about memory problems or trouble moving parts of your body, like your arms and legs. Your doctor will need to know if you have conditions like arthritis or stomach problems that could cause similar symptoms. 

Procedures and tests might include:

  • Endoscopy: Your doctor can use a thin, flexible tube with a camera to see inside the stomach and part of the small intestine. A small piece of tissue from inside the small intestine is usually sent to a lab to test for signs of damage caused by infection. 
  • Lab tests can look for the bacteria that causes Whipple’s disease. 
  • Blood tests can determine if you have a low red blood cell count or other signs of Whipple’s disease.

Treatments for Whipple’s Disease

Whipple’s disease can cause serious problems because it makes it harder for your body to get enough nutrition from your diet. Treatments can include: 

  • Long-term antibiotic treatment for 1 to 2 years
  • Nutritional replacement with high-calorie meals to help patients regain weight 
  • Drinking plenty of liquids each day replaces fluid lost from diarrhea
  • Vitamin D, calcium, magnesium, and vitamin K supplements replace lost nutrients

Recovering from Whipple’s disease may be a long process, and symptoms can return. It is important to keep regular appointments with your healthcare provider and take medicine as directed.

Next Steps: When to See a Doctor 

Symptoms of Whipple’s disease are similar to those of many other health problems caused by bacteria, viruses, medications, and the environment. People with Whipple’s disease don’t usually notice major signs for several years. 

You should contact your doctor if you have these symptoms:

  • Stomach pain
  • Diarrhea 
  • Frequent joint pain
  • Unexpected weight loss
  • Vision changes

Tips to Prepare for a Doctor’s Appointment

You can prepare for your doctor’s appointment to make it easier to decide what types of tests will be necessary. Make a list of:

  • Your symptoms and the dates or times you noticed them.
  • All over-the-counter products, vitamins, and supplements you take regularly.
  • Questions about symptoms and other concerns.

Living with Whipple’s Disease

Living with Whipple’s disease can be difficult because so little is known about it. 

There are organizations that help patients and their families find doctors with experience taking care of people with Whipple’s disease. 

These organizations can give you more information to find support groups, websites, and helplines for questions about living with Whipple’s disease: