What Is Whipple’s Disease?

Bacteria called Tropheryma whipplei cause Whipple’s disease. This bacteria affects the digestive system and can spread to the:

  • heart
  • lungs
  • brain
  • joints
  • skin
  • eyes

It’s a relatively rare disease, but it can be life-threatening.

It’s widely believed that there’s a genetic predisposition to developing the illness. White men between 40 and 60 are more likely to contract the condition than any other group. The rate for Whipple’s disease also tends to be higher in places that lack freshwater and proper sanitation. Currently, there’s no known way to prevent Whipple’s disease.

Whipple’s disease prevents your body from properly absorbing nutrients. Because of this, it affects many different parts of the body and is associated with a variety of symptoms. In advanced stages of the disease, the infection may spread from the intestines to other organs such as the:

  • heart
  • lungs
  • brain
  • joints
  • eyes

The most common signs and symptoms of Whipple’s disease include:

The following signs and symptoms don’t occur as frequently but can indicate that the condition is getting worse:

Infection with the T. whipplei bacteria is the one and only known cause of Whipple’s. The bacteria will lead to the development of internal sores and cause bodily tissues to thicken.

The villi are finger-like tissues that absorb nutrients in the small intestine. When the villi begin to thicken, their natural shape begins to change. This damages the villi and prevents them from effectively absorbing nutrients. This leads to many of the symptoms of Whipple’s disease.

A diagnosis of Whipple’s disease is complicated, especially because symptoms are similar to other more common conditions that range from celiac disease to neurological disorders. Your doctor will try to rule out these other conditions before diagnosing you with Whipple’s disease.


The first sign your doctor will look for to determine if you have Whipple’s disease is lesions. An endoscopy is the insertion of a small flexible tube down your throat to the small intestine. The tube has a mini camera attached. Your doctor will observe the condition of your intestinal walls. Thick walls with creamy, ragged covers are a potential sign of Whipple’s.


During an endoscopy, your doctor may remove tissue from your intestinal walls to test for the presence of the T. whipplei bacteria. This procedure is called a biopsy and can confirm an infection.

Polymerase Chain Reaction

Polymerase chain reaction is a highly sensitive test that amplifies the DNA of the T. whipplei from your tissue samples. If the bacteria have been in your tissue, there will be DNA evidence of it. This test can confirm the existence of the T. whipplei bacteria in your tissue.

Blood Tests

Your doctor might order a complete blood count. This will help determine if you have a low count of red blood cells and low amounts of albumin, which are both signs of anemia. Anemia is an indication that you might have Whipple’s disease.

An aggressive course of antibiotics is usually the first step in treatment, including two weeks of antibiotics through an intravenous (IV). In addition, you’ll likely be on daily antibiotics for one to two years.

Other treatment options include:

  • ingesting proper amounts of fluids
  • taking antimalarial medication for 12 to 18 months
  • using iron supplements to assist with anemia
  • taking vitamin D, vitamin K, calcium, and magnesium supplements
  • maintaining a high-calorie diet to help with nutrient absorption
  • taking corticosteroids to help ease inflammation
  • taking nonsteroidal pain medication, such as ibuprofen

Whipple’s disease is a bacterial infection that can lead to death if it’s not treated properly.

After treatment begins, many of the symptoms will go away within a month. The best thing you can do is continue to take your antibiotics. Relapses are common. When they occur, additional symptoms, such as neurological problems, can show up as well.