Whipple's Disease

What is Whipple's disease?

Whipple's disease is a rare, infectious condition that prevents the small intestine from properly absorbing nutrients. Inflammatory cells infiltrate the intestine to such an extent that the villi —small, finger-like projections that protrude from the intestinal wall— become distended and very abnormally prominent preventing transport of nutrients to the body.

What are the symptoms of Whipple's disease?

An illustration showing healthy villi of the small intestine.

The most common symptoms of Whipple's disease are:

Neurological symptoms may include:

  • headaches, and vision problems
  • memory problems and dementia
  • muscle weakness or twitching

Although not covered in detail on this page, Whipple's disease can also affect other parts of the body such as the skin, joints, nervous system, brain, lungs, and heart. Patients can present with a long history of joint problems, fever, diarrhea, weight loss, enlarged lymph nodes, skin pigmentation and intermittent exacerbations of abdominal pain.

How do you diagnose Whipple's disease?

A biopsy is performed during endoscopic examination of the small intestine.

  • biopsy with tissue staining
  • electron microscopes can examine biopsy tissue
  • DNA testing, but this is a recent diagnostic tool

How do you treat Whipple's Disease?

Antibiotics are prescribed for a long period:

  • tetracycline
  • penicillin
  • ampicillin

Patients with Whipple's disease are treated with antibiotics for several months, and usually go into remission; some may have relapses.