Can COVID-19 Cause Diarrhea? An In-Depth Look at Coronavirus and Digestive Health

February 18, 2024

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The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a diverse array of clinical manifestations beyond the hallmark respiratory symptoms. In particular, gastrointestinal symptoms like diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain have emerged as common complaints in a subset of COVID-19 patients. This article provides an extensive overview of the connections between COVID-19 and digestive health, specifically diarrhea.

Understanding COVID-19’s Impact on the Gastrointestinal System

Emerging research indicates that SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus responsible for COVID-19, can directly infect and replicate within the intestinal epithelium. This disruption of the gut lining enables leakage of viral particles into the digestive tract, potentially triggering immune responses that manifest as diarrhea and other digestive issues.

Additionally, COVID-19 elicits widespread inflammation, which scientists hypothesize may contribute to gastrointestinal symptoms. This means that diarrhea in COVID-19 may stem from direct viral infection of intestinal cells or result indirectly from the body’s inflammatory reaction.

Though estimates vary, published literature suggests 10-35% of COVID-19 cases involve digestive symptoms like diarrhea and vomiting. One study found that diarrhea specifically occurs in about 12% of patients. Compared to the flu, research indicates COVID-19 causes significantly higher rates of gastrointestinal symptoms. This confirms that diarrhea represents a clinically relevant manifestation of coronavirus infection rather than an incidental occurrence.

Furthermore, emerging case reports find that digestive issues like diarrhea often debut prior to more recognized COVID-19 symptoms like fever and cough, or even in the absence of respiratory concerns. This means gastrointestinal upset can potentially serve as the initial clinical red flag signalling SARS-CoV-2 infection. However, more research must investigate these early observational findings further.

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Factors that May Exacerbate COVID-19 Gastrointestinal Symptoms

Though anyone infected with COVID-19 faces risks of diarrhea, certain characteristics and health conditions appear to increase susceptibility. For example, studies report higher frequencies of diarrhea among COVID-19 patients with severe disease progression necessitating intensive care compared to mild infections. Elderly populations also face elevated diarrheal risks, likely tied to the immune response changes that accompany aging.

Meanwhile, individuals living with inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s or colitis may face amplified risks as well. By damaging intestinal lining integrity, these chronic gastrointestinal conditions potentially facilitate additional damage from SARS-CoV-2 induced inflammation. Those recovering from other recent gastrointestinal infections should take heightened precautions too.

Preventing and Managing Diarrhea During COVID-19

If diarrhea occurs, patients should consider contacting telehealth professionals for personalized advice while self-isolating. In most cases, COVID-19 related diarrhea resolves without prescription medications. However, antidiarrheal drugs may provide relief in some instances alongside rigorous hydration and electrolyte replacement efforts.

Most importantly, frequent handwashing with soap remains imperative to prevent viral spread via the fecal-oral route if diarrhea results from COVID-19.quarantine also protects from transmission through this avenue. Following public health containment measures like social distancing as well can help mitigate risks of becoming infected with SARS-CoV-2 and developing associated diarrhea.

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The Bottom Line

In summary, substantial evidence confirms that COVID-19 can contribute to diarrhea alongside its more widely known respiratory effects. Gastrointestinal symptoms may manifest due to direct viral invasion of the intestinal epithelium or secondarily from inflammation. Though estimates range based on demographics and disease severity, around 12% of those infected with the novel coronavirus experience diarrhea. For optimal outcomes, those experiencing diarrhea in the context of a potential COVID-19 diagnosis must take precautionary hygienic measures while contacting telehealth professionals for symptom management guidance. Stay vigilant for gastrointestinal concerns that may signal SARS-CoV-2 infection even with no cough or shortness of breath too.

Frequently Asked Questions About COVID-19 and Diarrhea

Can COVID-19 really cause diarrhea?

Yes, substantial research confirms diarrhea represents a common COVID-19 associated symptom, likely resulting from direct viral infection and replication in intestinal epithelial cells in some cases. Overall, around 12% of COVID-19 patients develop diarrhea.

How long does COVID-19 diarrhea usually last?

Most cases of diarrhea tied to COVID-19 infection resolve spontaneously with supportive care like hydration and rest within a few days. However, persistence for a week or more occurs occasionally as well. Those experiencing prolonged diarrhea should consult doctors.

Are gastrointestinal issues early symptoms of COVID-19?

Emerging research indicates that diarrhea and other digestive complaints may indeed debut prior to respiratory manifestations of COVID-19 among the subset of patients with gastrointestinal involvement. More study must confirm these early clinical timelines though.

Can you spread COVID-19 through poop if you have diarrhea?

Yes, viral shedding into stool raises risks of fecal-oral COVID-19 transmission if infected individuals experience diarrhea. Using shared bathrooms during quarantine also promotes spread without proper hygiene. SARS-CoV-2 viral particles remain stable in feces.

If I have diarrhea should I get tested for coronavirus?

While many diarrheal causes exist beyond COVID-19, contacting your healthcare provider for evaluation remains prudent if exhibiting an otherwise unexplained fever, coughing, or shortness of breath alongside gastrointestinal symptoms. Getting tested eventually provides definitive diagnostic clarity as well.

In Conclusion Key Takeaways Regarding Diarrhea and COVID-19

  • Diarrhea affects about 12% of people infected with COVID-19 due to viral damage of intestinal cells and inflammation.
  • Digestive issues like diarrhea may manifest prior to respiratory symptoms or without them entirely in rare cases.
  • Elderly COVID-19 patients and those with underlying digestion conditions face amplified diarrhea risks.
  • Preventing viral transmission via stools requires handwashing if diarrhea results from COVID-19.
  • While self-resolving in most cases, contacting telehealth services for symptom management and hydration advice remains important for those experiencing COVID-19 diarrhea.

References

  1. Gu, Jin et al. “COVID-19 and Gastrointestinal Symptoms: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” The American journal of gastroenterology vol. 116,1 (2021): 64-75. doi:10.14309/ajg.0000000000000937
  2. Mokhtari, Tahmineh et al. “COVID-19 and multiorgan failure: A narrative review on potential mechanisms.” Journal of molecular histology vol. 51,6 (2020): 613-628. doi:10.1007/s10735-020-09915-3
  3. Sultan, S et al. “AGA Institute Rapid Review and Recommendations on the Role of Pre- and Probiotics in the Management of Patients with COVID-19.” Gastroenterology vol. 159,6 (2020): 2209-2218.e3. doi:10.1053/j.gastro.2020.09.009
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