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Infectious Diseases

Updated 13 March 2020

Research reveals why you shouldn't overlook the gastro symptoms of the new coronavirus

Do healthcare professionals need to make a greater effort to spot digestive issues for earlier detection, diagnosis and isolation of of the new coronavirus? New research suggests that may be the case.

As cases of the new coronavirus are being confirmed around the world, with several confirmed cases in South Africa so far, people want more understanding as to how the virus spreads and what exactly we should be looking out for.

During the first couple of weeks of coronavirus outbreak it was established that the virus was largely respiratory, meaning that coughing is a significant symptom and the virus spreads through cough droplets on surfaces and close proximity to people.

However, new research that is due to be published in the official journal of the American Gastroenterological Society, suggests that we should be looking further down when it comes to the spreading of coronavirus – your stomach (and subsequent faeces) may also play a part.

What does a respiratory virus have to do with your stomach?

As people look out for the three key symptoms, fever, fatigue and a dry cough, they might dismiss gastrointestinal symptoms that were also experienced in some cases. Some patients with the Covid-19 virus have reported diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting and abdominal discomfort.

But why would a virus that should affect the lungs cause these symptoms? According to scientists, it has to do with the way the virus attaches to human cells and mostly what enzymes are activated and where.

In some cases of the coronavirus, mild to moderate liver injury was experienced. This could explain some of the gastrointestinal symptoms. According to the research, this was also seen during the outbreak of SARS in 2003.

Notably, the first case of the new coronavirus infection that was confirmed in the US stated that there were two days of nausea and vomiting when the patient was first admitted to the hospital, and that loose, watery stool was passed on the second day. 

We should start looking beyond the obvious

As more and more research is being done on coronavirus and Covid-19, it's important that we use this as a way to improve diagnosis and treatment. In this paper that focused on gastrointestinal symptoms, it is clear that the virus doesn't only bind to lung tissue but also tissue of the colon, upper oesophagus and liver amongst others.

This means that medical professionals might be making a greater effort to spot digestive issues for earlier detection, diagnosis and isolation of of the new coronavirus. The way the virus adheres to cells and which enzymes are activated in the process can also help with a potential treatment or vaccine.

This means improved hygiene

As digestive issues could present with the Covid-19 virus, patients and healthcare workers should be even more stringent with hygiene as smaller studies also indicated that the coronavirus could be found and spread through stool.

This means washing your hands especially after being to the toilet or cleaning up after children to prevent the spread of the virus through the oral-faecal matter (through the surface of hands or through contaminated food and water).

Image credit: iStock