A recent study shows that digestive issues might be an early symptom for people who have contracted COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. CBS News reported that researchers in China found that half of coronavirus patients analyzed experienced digestive symptoms during early onset of the illness.
Researchers from the Wuhan Medical Treatment Expert Group for COVID-19 analyzed 204 patients who were hospitalized between Jan. 18 and Feb. 28. The study, which was published in The American Journal of Gastroenterology, determined that many patients experienced digestive issues, including loss of appetite, diarrhea, vomiting and/or abdominal pain.
The study also concluded that patients with digestive issues did not seek medical care as quickly as the patients who did not experience these symptoms. This is possibly because the lack of respiratory symptoms led them to believe they were not infected with COVID-19.
“Clinicians must bear in mind that digestive symptoms, such as diarrhea, may be a presenting feature of COVID-19, and that the index of suspicion may need to be raised earlier in these cases rather than waiting for respiratory symptoms to emerge,” the researchers wrote in their study, adding that larger sample studies are needed in order to fully confirm their findings.
As noted by Business Insider, another study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association also found evidence of digestive symptoms in patients with COVID-19. Of 138 people hospitalized in Wuhan, China, from Jan. 1 to Jan. 28, 14 patients (10.1%) presented with diarrhea and nausea one to two days prior to development of fever.
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Roberto Viau Colindres, an infectious disease physician at Tufts Medical Center, told HuffPost that it’s too early to make any clinical recommendations based on this data ― but it certainly shouldn’t be taken lightly either.
“I am not aware of any [COVID-19] cases of people coming down with severe gastrointestinal disease requiring IV hydration,” Colindres said. “However, this may change in the future. Clinicians should keep in mind that this may be an early manifestation of COVID-19.”
He noted that the study supports already-known information about COVID-19, which is that the virus can appear in stool. This is just another reason for people to practice diligent hand-washing.
Purvi Parikh, a physician and board member with Physicians for Patient Protection, described COVID-19 as a constantly moving target.
“Since this virus strain is new, we are learning about it as we try to treat it,” she said. “As we see more cases, we will learn more about it.”
Parikh noted that this new data reinforces the idea that not everyone with COVID-19 will present with the same symptoms. “It is important to have a high index of suspicion for COVID-19 in those with GI symptoms,” she added.
What You Should Do If You Have Digestive Or Any Other Symptoms
Emily Hyle, an infectious disease physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, noted that gastrointestinal symptoms can be present with many conditions or illnesses, not just coronavirus. She stressed that you should not assume that a digestive problem is definitively a sign of COVID-19.
However, if you are concerned or have questions, you should absolutely contact your health care provider. Hyle emphasized that all people ― regardless of symptoms ― should currently be practicing social distancing at home if possible.
Similarly, Parikh suggested hydrating and remaining at home for any mild digestive symptoms. She cautioned that if you cannot keep any food or water down, start to feel dehydrated ― or if you have a headache and are feeling dizzy or lightheaded ― further testing might be in order.
“It’s best to call ahead,” she said. “That way you don’t expose yourself to other confirmed patients or expose others.”
Other than that, stay put. Because there is a real concern about hospitals becoming overloaded, it is best to remain at home if you don’t feel like your issues are severe ― that goes for COVID-19 digestive symptoms and respiratory symptoms.
“If your cough, chest pain or tightness, or shortness of breath is severe, call your doctor, local hospital or urgent care for directions on testing and medical care,” Parikh said. “If you cannot speak in full sentences, feel lightheaded, have trouble catching your breath, or have blue lips, call 911. If diarrhea is so severe that you are lightheaded or dizzy, and unable to eat or drink, also call 911.”
Bottom line, don’t get too panicked — just be smart and prepared.
The most important thing to remember is that the presence of a GI symptom does not necessarily mean you have COVID-19.
“Digestive symptoms are extremely common with a wide range of different infections and other medical problems,” Hyle said. “I would encourage people to avoid focusing on these specific symptoms as linked to COVID-19.”
For dealing with stress, Parikh suggested specific coping techniques, such as exercise and meditation, along with moderating your intake of the news if it’s triggering anxiety.
That said, it’s still crucial to take precautions to protect both yourself and the people around you.
“Most people [with COVID-19] will recover with no significant issues,” Colindres said. “You may not even notice you are sick. You may have symptoms that are so mild that you will be hard-pressed to distinguish them from an allergy. Our concern — and the reason why we want you to help stop the spread — is that there are some populations that are at a much greater risk for severe symptoms.”
“We don’t want you to be afraid. We don’t want you to be anxious,” Colindres continued. “We want you to follow the advice from medical professionals and stay at home.”
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