What is Tropical Sprue?

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  • Written By: Debra Durkee
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 31 October 2018
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Tropical sprue is a condition in which the body does not absorb nutrients sufficient to remain healthy. As the name suggests, the infection can be contracted by those who live in or visit tropical areas throughout the world. The condition impacts the body's intestines and their ability to function.

Symptoms of tropical sprue are largely gastrointestinal. These include diarrhea and weight loss, as the bacteria that infects the intestines keeps food and nutrients from being absorbed into the body properly. Other symptoms include indigestion, cramping, and gas. Some of the symptoms that do not impact the gastrointestinal tract include pale skin, fatigue, fever, numbness in some areas of the body and irritability. Some individuals may also develop edema, which is the retention of fluids in the feet and legs.

Caused by the presence of bacteria in the intestines, tropical sprue can be caught by individuals who live in tropical areas as well as those who are traveling in such areas. Those who are in the tropics for short trips are less susceptible than those who spend a longer amount of time there. There is no difference between the number of instances in men and women, or between races. Most cases are found in adults, but children can be susceptible as well.


Tropical sprue is usually diagnosed through blood tests to determine the levels of nutrients in the body as well as from a fecal test for the presence of bacteria. As tropical sprue generally has a visible impact on only the top section of the small intestine, an imaging scan may also be used to determine if there is any sign of infection. Some individuals may also undergo an endoscopy procedure to determine the same thing.

If left untreated, the bacteria that causes tropical sprue will continue to reproduce and result in malnutrition and anemia. The typical treatment for the condition is a regimen of antibiotics. An individual may also be instructed to increase his or her vitamin intake to make up for those not absorbed into the body. Drinking extra fluids will also help combat the dehydrating effects of diarrhea.

Most cases are reported in areas throughout the Caribbean and Southeast Asia. Puerto Rico has one of the highest rates of tropical sprue in the world, and it is also common in the Dominican Republic. It is not a common disease in all tropical areas, but it can lay dormant in the body for up to a decade after the individual has been exposed.



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