Why COVID-19 can be more severe if you have digestive issues

People with preexisting health conditions are more vulnerable to serious COVID-19 infections. This includes people with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

In case you don’t know, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a broad term used to describe a variety of conditions that cause inflammation in the digestive tract. Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis are the two most common types of IBD. Like other chronic inflammatory conditions, IBD is caused by an overactive immune system that goes after healthy tissues… in this case, the digestive tract.

Research shows that people with IBD have the same risk of contracting COVID-19 as the general population. But a recently released study shows that if they contract COVID-19, there are a few factors that could put them at risk for developing a more serious case, including certain medications used to manage IBD.

Steroids raise the risk of a severe COVID-19 infection

When COVID-19 struck the U.S. earlier this year, researchers from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and the University of North Carolina School of Medicine hatched a plan to track its effect on people with IBD.

They formed an international registry for people with IBD and COVID-19. That registry includes 528 patients from 33 countries. They recently analyzed the registry data and found a few important takeaways people with IBD should be aware of during this pandemic.

First off, they found that age was a factor in how severely people with IBD were impacted by COVID-19. Of course, that’s true for the general population too. The older you are, the higher your risk of a serious infection. They also found that people who had IBD along with other chronic conditions or diseases were more likely to develop a serious infection.

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But probably the most important finding was related to the medications used to treat IBD.

Researchers found that one popular treatment for IBD, corticosteroids, were tied to a higher risk of developing a severe COVID-19 infection. That makes perfect sense since corticosteroids suppress the immune system. That’s why they are effective treatments for people with IBD and other autoimmune conditions to begin with.

Luckily, the study uncovered some good news too. Another popular treatment for IBD, TNF antagonist medications aren’t tied to a higher risk of developing a severe case of COVID-19.

“One of our main takeaways for the IBD patient population is that maintaining remission with steroid-sparing treatments will be important through this pandemic. Our finding that TNF antagonist therapy is not associated with severe COVID-19 is reassuring news in light of the large number of patients who require this therapy, currently the most commonly prescribed biologic therapy for IBD patients,” said study co-author Dr. Ryan Ungaro.

Talk to your doctor about treatment options

So, if you’re taking steroids for IBD (or another condition), it’s probably worth talking to your doctor about alternative treatments. Depending on your unique health situation, it may be as simple as switching to TNF antagonist therapy. Or it may be more complex. But either way, you’ll want to investigate other treatment options that don’t make you more vulnerable to this unpredictable virus.

Sources:

  1. New study sheds light on IBD patients with COVID —  EurekAlert!
  2. Coronavirus (COVID-19) information for patients with inflammatory bowel disease — University of Chicago.
Jenny Smiechowski

By Jenny Smiechowski

Jenny Smiechowski is a Chicago-based freelance writer who specializes in health, nutrition and the environment. Her work has appeared in online and print publications like Chicagoland Gardening magazine, Organic Lifestyle Magazine, BetterLife Magazine, TheFix.com, Hybridcars.com and Seedstock.com.