Respiratory symptoms are the hallmark of a COVID-19 infection. But others are pretty strange, like loss of smell and taste. Others are more commonplace, producing flu-like body aches, sore throat and headache. But about 20 percent may get “stomach bug” symptoms and be in for a long recovery.
Research is showing that those patients who exhibit gastrointestinal symptoms may have a COVID infection that’s hard to get rid of.
Doctors and researchers are also beginning to understand that this one symptom, in particular, can appear on its own, without any respiratory or other symptoms, and that it can make recovering from and diagnosing a COVID-19 infection much more problematic.
Studies show 20 percent have only stomach trouble
“There’s a growing amount of literature showing that abdominal symptomatology is a common presentation for COVID-19,” said Mitch Wilson, a radiologist and clinical lecturer in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry.
In fact, a review of research conducted by Dr. Wilson and his team revealed that nearly one in every five patients with COVID-19 may have only gastrointestinal symptoms.
The researchers examined 36 studies that had been published before July 2020. Ad the most common symptoms are loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and generalized abdominal pain. Of course, having these symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean you have a COVID-19 infection.
But, says Dr. Wilson, “… in an environment where COVID-19 is very prevalent, it’s something to consider and potentially raise as a possibility to the referring physician.”
He notes that radiologists have an important role to play when they conduct abdominal imaging on a patient.
In addition to gastrointestinal symptoms, they also determined potential signs radiologists should look for while conducting abdominal imaging that could be evidence of COVID-19 infection. Those signs include inflammation of the small and large bowel, air within the bowel wall (pneumatosis) and bowel perforation (pneumoperitoneum). The signs are quite rare, said the researchers, and could indicate patients with advanced disease.
Stomach symptoms make it harder to recover from COVID-19
A recent analysis of more than 200 people admitted to three hospitals in Hubei, China returned numbers that echo Dr. Wilson’s study: Almost 1 in 5 had at least one gastrointestinal symptom.
The Chinese study also found that people with these symptoms took longer to recover from a COVID-19 infection than patients who did not have gastrointestinal symptoms
While the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is best known for destroying healthy cells in the lungs, thus making it hard to breathe, these researchers think the illness may also do similar harm to the digestive tract and liver tissue.
“Seeing these things is not necessarily telling us a patient has COVID-19,” said Wilson. “It could be from a variety of potential causes. But one of those potential causes is infection from the virus, and in an environment where COVID-19 is very prevalent, it’s something to consider and potentially raise as a possibility to the referring physician.”
What to do if you get a stomach bug
First of all, don’t panic. You may just have a case of the stomach flu.
On the other hand, given the spread of COVID-19 going on now, it’s smart to take some precautions:
- Stay home. Not only will you feel better, but you’ll be protecting others from a potential infection.
- Wash your hands. Often. With hot, soapy water, for at least 20 seconds.
- Clean and disinfect surfaces regularly. This includes toilet seat and flush handle, bathroom doorknobs, counters, and other things you touch often.
- Drink plenty of fluids. Water, broths and electrolyte replacement drinks will help.
- Eat a bland diet. Think bananas, rice and dry toast.
- If possible, use a separate bathroom. If your stomach troubles do indicate a mild COVID infection, then the virus is living in your stools. Using a separate bathroom will further prevent the spread of infection.
If your stomach troubles are in fact due to a run-of-the-mill stomach bug, or to food poisoning, they should start to get better within 48-36 hours.
If you’re not feeling better by then, it’s time to check with your doctor. Also contact your doctor if you think you might be dehydrated (dark urine, a dry mouth and tongue, and dizziness are signs of this). Also, if your stool is bloody or black, if you have severe abdominal pain, or if you’re running a fever, call your doctor immediately.
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Abdominal imaging findings in patients with SARS-CoV-2 infection: a scoping review — Abdominal Radiology
Gastrointestinal Symptoms Onset in COVID-19 Patients in Wuhan, China — Digestive Diseases and Sciences