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What is Whipple's Disease?

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  • Written By: wiseGEEK Writer
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 08 January 2018
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Whipple's disease is a potentially fatal, but extremely rare disease caused by the bacterium Tropheryma whipplei. Though the condition usually begins in the intestines it can spread to the whole body and become systemic, and at this point it may have created permanent damage of organs or of the central nervous system. When it is detected early, Whipple’s disease can be treated successfully with long courses of antibiotics (usually over a year or more), to kill the bacteria involved.

The condition is most likely to occur in men and usually those who are over 30 and under 60. It’s also more common in Caucasians than in other in race groups. There is some suspicion that a gene that might fight t. whipplei is damaged or functions poorly in the case of those who get this condition. This is not proven.

Early symptoms of Whipple’s disease include many different ones. Some very common expressions of the condition are weight loss, diarrhea, cramps, fatigue and pain in the joints. Many people feel fatigued and blood levels may show anemia because infection with the disease makes it difficult for the intestines to absorb nutrients. Other symptoms that can emerge especially as the disease progresses include low fever, changes in gait, confusion or memory loss, swollen lymph nodes (which may also occur early), breathing difficulties, and cough.

There are several ways to diagnose Whipple’s disease, yet the condition is so rare, doctors may not think to look for it. A cursory look at the symptoms can indicate so many conditions. Whipple’s could misdiagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome until it begins to become systemic. When it is suspected, biopsy of the intestine and/or biopsy of a swollen lymph node can confirm presence of the bacteria. Blood tests that show anemia may also make Whipple’s disease suspect.

Lack of treatment is a disaster, because this condition can be treated. When it is missed it is almost uniformly fatal. The treatment is long-term and will include taking daily antibiotics for one to two years. Even with treatment the disease can recur, though it is not likely to go undiagnosed once initial diagnosis has been made. Recurrence of Whipple’s disease means undergoing another round of treatment.

In addition to attacking the bacteria with antibiotics, people may require some other medication to help deal with Whipple’s disease symptoms. They might need to take nutritional supplements or vitamins to make up for deficits in vitamin and mineral absorption. Joint pain may continue for a while and is often addressed with over the counter pain medications like ibuprofen.

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anon35948
Post 1

I have been suffering from these symptoms for 7 years now, but the episodes or "bouts" are sporadic -- typically occurring every 3 to 7 months. Is this disease chronic? Or is/can it be sporadic as I am experiencing? I have not been diagnosed despite years of tests and theories...I have never been tested for Whipple's Disease, and if it is sporadic vs. chronic, perhaps I should be? Can anyone help me?

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