A fever, dry cough, and shortness of breath are hallmark signs COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus. But early research suggests that another common symptom may be often overlooked: stomach upset.
A recent analysis of more than 200 people admitted to three hospitals in Hubei, China — the province where the virus called SARS-CoV-2 originated — with mild cases of COVID-19 found that almost 1 in 5 had at least one gastrointestinal symptom, such as diarrhea, vomiting, or belly pain. Nearly 80% also lacked an appetite.
Those symptoms can stem from other common causes, including stomach flu or food poisoning. But if you have COVID-19, GI problems may slow your recovery. And the digestive symptoms may worsen as you get sicker.
Once any virus infects your body, it can destroy healthy cells and make multiple copies of itself. COVID-19 mainly attacks the cells lining your airways. This makes it hard for you to breathe and can lead to pneumonia. But researchers think the illness also may harm your digestive tract and liver tissue.
The study in China found that a third of the people with mild COVID-19 had diarrhea. The problem, including watery stool, was usually not severe. The diarrhea lasted for an average of 5 days.
Those with digestive symptoms were more likely to have a positive stool test for the coronavirus, which means they had SARS-CoV-2 RNA in their poop. It also took them longer to clear the virus from their bodies, compared to those without gastrointestinal symptoms.
What You Should Do
If you have diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting, it doesn’t mean that you have COVID-19. But it’s wise to pay extra attention to your symptoms during this pandemic, especially if you have a health condition that raises your chances for an infection or if you live in an area where the new coronavirus is widespread.
Stay home. Most people who test positive for the coronavirus get mildly sick and get better without treatment. Avoid going out unless you must, such as for urgent medical visits.
Have a “sick” bedroom and bathroom. If you can, use a separate bathroom for yourself if you live with others to prevent spreading illness through your poop.