Whipple’s Disease

What is Whipple’s Disease?

Whipple’s disease is a rare and little known type of bacterial infection. It is specifically caused by a bacterium known as Tropheryma whipplei. More often than not, Whipple’s disease affects a person’s gastrointestinal system. But because it is an infection, Whipple’s disease can also spread to the heart, lungs, eyes, brain, skin, joints, and elsewhere throughout the body.

This particular bacterial infection can be quite serious and could even be life-threatening in nature if not properly treated. It prevents the gastrointestinal system from being able to properly process foods (like fats and carbs) and absorb nutrients. This issue, known as malabsorption, can cause problems throughout the body. The bacterium that causes Whipple’s disease affects the mucosal linings of the small intestines, which in turn leads to these gastrointestinal issues.

Men between the ages of 40 and 60 are more likely to suffer from Whipple’s disease than other demographics. It is possible that some people are more genetically predisposed to developing this particular bacterial infection. Some researchers believe this due to the fact that not everyone who is exposed to the Tropheryma whipplei bacterium will develop Whipple’s disease.

What are the Symptoms of a Whipple’s Disease?

Stomach pain and bloating are common problems with Whipple’s disease. A person may also experience abdominal cramping. These symptoms may be worse after meals. Other common symptoms of Whipple’s disease can include diarrhea, unexplained weight loss, fatigue, anemia, joint pain and inflammation, and weakness.

Some of the possible but less typical symptoms of Whipple’s disease include cough, fever, vision problems, memory loss and dementia, chest pain, cough, and even skin darkening. These symptoms often occur when the infection has spread beyond the gastrointestinal tract.

Whipple’s Disease Causes

A bacteria called Tropheryma whipplei (T. whipplei) is responsible for Whipple’s disease, but it is not completely clear how it infects people. The bacteria affects the lining of the intestine initially, which suggests that it could be ingested. Eventually, the infection spreads to other parts of the body to cause a wide range of symptoms.

Whipple’s disease cannot be transmitted from one person to another like many other types of bacterial infection, but it is known that T. whipplei bacteria can be found in soil and sewage wastewater. This suggests that people could contract it by coming into contact with these things, though it isn’t clear exactly how it enters the body.

Farmers and people with outdoor occupations are more likely to develop Whipple’s disease than others. It is thought that this is because they are more likely to come into contact with wastewater or soil which could be infected with T. whipplei.

Some people carry the bacteria but do not become ill from it. This suggests that there is a genetic factor involved. Those who do show symptoms of infection may simply have genes or traits which make their immune system more susceptible to the disease than others.

How is Whipple’s Disease Treated?

Since Whipple’s disease can be such a serious bacterial infection, intensive and most likely long-term antibiotic treatments may be necessary.

Oftentimes, treatment involves more than one antibiotic medication used in combination, particularly when the disease has spread. IV antibiotics help to get the drugs into the system faster so that they can begin attacking the bacteria faster and more effectively. Most often, the antibiotics are carefully selected so that they can not only treat the gastrointestinal infection but could treat the infection if it has crossed over into the brain or nervous system.

Nutritional supplements are also usually necessary to counteract the malabsorption that Whipple’s disease causes.

Whipple’s Disease Prevention

So far, scientists have yet to find a definitive prevention for Whipple’s disease, since they are not entirely sure exactly how humans contract it. There is no vaccination against the disease.

Those who regularly come into contact with wastewater and soil should take basic precautions such as wearing gloves and using mouth and eye protection where potentially infected water could splash the face. It’s also wise to wash hands regularly, particularly before eating. However, the T. whipplei bacteria may enter the body in ways other than mouth-to-hand contact, so this may not eradicate the risk of contracting it.

Last Reviewed:
October 11, 2016
Last Updated:
October 23, 2017
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