Learn more about the symptoms, causes and treatment of this rare primarily digestive infection.
Whipple disease is a rare bacterial infection that most often affects your joints and digestive system. Whipple disease interferes with normal digestion by impairing the breakdown of foods, and hampering your body's ability to absorb nutrients, such as fats and carbohydrates.
Whipple disease can also infect other organs, including your brain, heart and eyes.
Without proper treatment, Whipple disease can be serious or fatal. However, a course of antibiotics can treat Whipple disease.
The small intestine has a ridged lining covered with tiny fingerlike projections called villi.
Digestive signs and symptoms are common in Whipple disease and may include:
Other frequent signs and symptoms associated with Whipple disease include:
In some cases, signs and symptoms of Whipple disease may include:
Brain and nervous system (neurological) signs and symptoms may include:
Symptoms tend to develop slowly over many years in most people with this disease. In some people, symptoms such as joint pain and weight loss develop years before the digestive symptoms that lead to diagnosis.
Whipple disease is potentially life-threatening yet usually treatable. Contact your doctor if you experience unusual signs or symptoms, such as unexplained weight loss or joint pain. Your doctor can perform tests to determine the cause of your symptoms.
Even after the infection is diagnosed and you're receiving treatment, let your doctor know if your symptoms don't improve. Sometimes antibiotic therapy isn't effective because the bacteria are resistant to the particular drug you're taking. The disease can recur, so it's important to watch for symptoms that reappear.
Whipple disease is caused by a type of bacterium called Tropheryma whipplei. The bacteria affect the mucosal lining of your small intestine first, forming small sores (lesions) within the wall of the intestine. The bacteria also damage the fine, hairlike projections (villi) that line the small intestine.
Not much is known about the bacteria. Although they seem readily present in the environment, scientists don't know where they come from or how they're spread to humans. Not everyone who carries the bacteria develops the disease. Some researchers believe that people with the disease may have a genetic defect in their immune system response that makes them more likely to become sick when exposed to the bacteria.
Whipple disease is extremely uncommon, affecting fewer than 1 in 1 million people.
Because so little is known about the bacteria that cause Whipple disease, risk factors for the disease haven't been clearly identified. Based on available reports, it appears more likely to affect:
The lining of your small intestine has fine, hairlike projections (villi) that help your body absorb nutrients. Whipple disease damages the villi, impairing nutrient absorption. Nutritional deficiencies are common in people with Whipple disease and can lead to fatigue, weakness, weight loss and joint pain.
Whipple disease is a progressive and potentially fatal disease. Although the infection is rare, associated deaths continue to be reported. This is due in large part to late diagnoses and delayed treatment. Death often is caused by the spread of the infection to the central nervous system, which can cause irreversible damage.
The process of diagnosing Whipple disease typically includes the following tests:
Biopsy. An important step in diagnosing Whipple disease is taking a tissue sample (biopsy), usually from the lining of the small intestine. To do this, your doctor typically performs an upper endoscopy. The procedure uses a thin, flexible tube (scope) with a light and a camera attached that passes through your mouth, throat, windpipe and stomach to your small intestine. The scope allows your doctor to view your digestive passages and take tissue samples.
During the procedure, doctors remove tissue samples from several sites in the small intestine. A doctor examines this tissue under a microscope in a lab. He or she looks for the presence of disease-causing bacteria and their sores (lesions), and specifically for Tropheryma whipplei bacteria. If these tissue samples don't confirm the diagnosis, your doctor might take a tissue sample from an enlarged lymph node or perform other tests.
In some cases, your doctor may ask you to swallow a capsule that holds a small camera. The camera can take images of your digestive passages for your doctor to view.
A DNA-based test known as polymerase chain reaction, which is available at some medical centers, can detect Tropheryma whipplei bacteria in biopsy specimens or spinal fluid samples.
Treatment of Whipple disease is with antibiotics, either alone or in combination, which can destroy the bacteria causing the infection.
Treatment is long-term, generally lasting a year or two, with the aim of destroying the bacteria. But symptom relief generally comes much quicker, often within the first week or two. Most people with no brain or nervous system complications recover completely after a full course of antibiotics.
When choosing antibiotics, doctors often select those that wipe out infections in the small intestine and also cross a layer of tissue around your brain (the blood-brain barrier). This is done to eliminate bacteria that may have entered your brain and central nervous system.
Because of the lengthy use of antibiotics, your doctor will need to monitor your condition for development of resistance to the drugs. If you relapse during treatment, your doctor may change your antibiotics.
In most cases, Whipple disease therapy begins with two to four weeks of ceftriaxone or penicillin given through a vein in your arm. Following that initial therapy, you'll likely take an oral course of sulfamethoxazole-trimethoprim (Bactrim, Septra) for one to two years.
Possible side effects of ceftriaxone and sulfamethoxazole-trimethoprim include allergic reactions, mild diarrhea, or nausea and vomiting.
Other medications that have been suggested as an alternative in some cases include oral doxycycline (Vibramycin, Doryx, others) combined with the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil), which you'll likely need to take for one to two years.
Possible side effects of doxycycline include loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to sunlight. Hydroxychloroquine may cause loss of appetite, diarrhea, headache, stomach cramps and dizziness.
Your symptoms should improve within one to two weeks of starting antibiotic treatment and go away entirely within about one month.
But even though symptoms improve quickly, further lab tests may reveal the presence of the bacteria for two or more years after you begin taking antibiotics. Follow-up testing will help your doctor determine when you can stop taking antibiotics. Regular monitoring can also detect development of resistance to a particular drug, often indicated by a lack of improvement in symptoms.
Even after successful treatment, Whipple disease can recur. Doctors usually advise regular checkups. If you've experienced a recurrence, you'll need to repeat antibiotic therapy.
Because of the nutrient-absorption difficulties associated with Whipple disease, your doctor may recommend taking vitamin and mineral supplements to ensure adequate nutrition. Your body may require additional vitamin D, folic acid, calcium, iron and magnesium.
If you have signs and symptoms common to Whipple disease, make an appointment with your doctor. Whipple disease is rare, and the signs and symptoms can indicate other, more common disorders, so it can be hard to diagnose. As a result, it's often diagnosed in its later stages. However, an early diagnosis reduces the risk of serious health effects associated with not treating the condition.
If your doctor is uncertain about the diagnosis, he or she may refer you to a doctor who specializes in digestive diseases or to another specialist depending on the symptoms you're having.
Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment, and know what to expect from your doctor.
For signs and symptoms common to Whipple disease, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
Don't hesitate to ask any other questions you have.
A doctor who sees you for possible Whipple disease is likely to ask a number of questions, such as: