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Quick Facts

Tropical Sprue

By

The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Jul 2020| Content last modified Jul 2020
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Your small intestine is where food is absorbed.

Malabsorption is when you have trouble absorbing the nutrients in your food. Nutrients are things that provide nutrition to your body. They include protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals.

What is tropical sprue?

Tropical sprue is a rare disorder affecting people in tropical and subtropical countries. It causes problems with the lining in your small intestine. You then have trouble breaking down (digesting) food and absorbing nutrients.

  • Symptoms include feeling unwell, light-colored stools, diarrhea, and weight loss

  • A doctor looks for symptoms in a person who lives in or has recently visited one of the areas where the disorder commonly happens (the Caribbean, southern India, and Southeast Asia)

  • Doctors use tetracycline (an antibiotic) to treat tropical sprue

What causes tropical sprue?

Doctors don’t know what causes tropical sprue, but they think it may be from an infection.

What are the symptoms of tropical sprue?

Symptoms may include:

  • Light-colored, soft, bulky, greasy, and unusually bad-smelling stool

  • Diarrhea

  • Fever

  • General feeling of illness

  • Weight loss

  • Anemia (low red blood cells), which can make you feel weak and tired

How can doctors tell if I have tropical sprue?

Doctors will suspect tropical sprue if you:

  • Recently lived in or visited the Caribbean, southern India, or Southeast Asia

  • Have anemia (low red blood cell count)

  • Have diarrhea that lasts for a long time

Doctors may do a:

  • Biopsy from your small intestine

  • Blood test to look for malnutrition

  • Stool test to look for another cause for symptoms, such as bacteria or parasites

With a biopsy, doctors take a small sample of tissue using instruments on the end of an endoscope (a flexible viewing tube). They then look at the sample under a microscope.

How do doctors treat tropical sprue?

Treatments include:

  • Tetracycline, an antibiotic, sometimes for up to 6 months

  • Vitamins to get enough iron, folate and vitamin B12

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