Gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms are seen in patients with COVID-19. The prevalence could be as high as 50%, but most studies show ranges from 16% to 33%.
Presenting with GI symptoms increases the risk of testing positive for SARs-CoV-2. Approximately 50% of patients with COVID-19 have detectable virus in their stool. Having GI symptoms has been associated with more severe disease.
Management of GI symptoms is mainly supportive, given the lack of FDA-approved treatments for COVID-19. Healthcare providers should be aware of the GI manifestations of COVID-19 and perform SARS-CoV-2 testing for patients presenting with digestive changes, especially in those with respiratory symptoms.
Sars-Cov-2 in the gastronintestinal tract
Several studies have shown the presence of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) in the digestive tract and stools. Approximately 50% of patients with coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) have detectable viral RNA in the stool. SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid protein has been found in gastric, duodenal, and rectal glandular epithelial cells.
Viral RNA also has been found in esophageal, gastric, duodenal, and rectal biopsies but only in patients with severe disease, suggesting that the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in gastrointestinal (GI) tissue is associated with a more severe disease course. Live virus has also been detected in the stool of patients with COVID-19 by electron microscopy. Although these findings raise the possibility of fecal-oral transmission, this mode of transmission has not been confirmed.
The pathophysiology of digestive symptoms associated with COVID-19 remains unclear. SARS-CoV-2 appears to enter host cells by binding to the angiotensin-converting enzyme-2 (ACE2) receptor and using the transmembrane serine protease 2 for spike protein priming. ACE2 is highly expressed in the small bowel and colon.
Data have shown co-expression of ACE2 and transmembrane serine protease 2 in esophageal cells and absorptive enterocytes from both the ileum and colon. Another study reported the infection of enterocytes by SARS-CoV-2 in small intestinal organoids. These findings support the possibility of viral invasion of enterocytes and provide a potential mechanism for SARS-CoV-2–associated GI symptoms.
Infectious SARS-CoV-2 has been isolated from stool samples of COVID-19 patients and shown to infect human intestinal organoids. There is also a clinical study from Austria that showed evidence for intestinal inflammation induced by SARS-CoV-2 in which patients with current or resolved diarrhea had higher concentrations of fecal calprotectin than patients without diarrhea. Interestingly, fecal calprotectin levels significantly correlated with serum interleukin 6.
Although the presence of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in the stool was not initially thought to be associated with digestive symptoms, recent data indicate that patients with GI symptoms may be more likely to have detectable fecal RNA than patients with respiratory symptoms only. In a study out of Wuhan, China, 69% of patients with diarrhea had detectable RNA in the stool as opposed to only 17% of patients without diarrhea.
Interestingly, viral RNA can be detected in stool several weeks after symptom onset. Another study from China found that respiratory samples remained positive for an average of 16.7 days after symptom onset, whereas fecal samples remained positive for about 27.9 days. In addition, patients with diarrhea may have more prolonged fecal shedding than patients without diarrhea. What is unknown is whether these patients are infective and if there is a fecal-oral spread to coronavirus.
GI symptoms: Prevalence
Although initial data found the prevalence of GI symptoms to be 2% to 10% among patients with COVID-19,15,16 subsequent studies have reported higher rates. In a multicenter study of 204 patients with COVID-19 in China, 50.5% reported GI symptoms at presentation to the hospital.
In a meta-analysis including 60 studies and 4,243 patients, the pooled prevalence of all GI symptoms was 16.1% in studies from China and 33.4% from other countries. In another meta-analysis including 47 studies and 10,890 unique patients, GI symptoms were present in less than 10% of patients, but rates were higher in studies outside of China.
Most studies included hospitalized patients, but some included outpatients. More recent studies out of California, New York, and Massachusetts reported a prevalence of GI symptoms of 31.9%19 and 35% (both inpatients and outpatients) and 61.3% (hospitalized patients). Furthermore, a US case-control study found that the presence of digestive symptoms was associated with a 70% increased risk of testing positive for SARS-CoV-2 (adjusted odds ratio 1.7; 95% confidence interval 1.1–2.5).
Of note, patients with COVID-19 may present with GI symptoms without respiratory symptoms. In a retrospective study of 1,141 patients with COVID-19 in China, 16% presented with GI symptoms only. A recent US study reported that 14.2% of patients with COVID-19 had digestive symptoms as their main presenting complaint, regardless of age or underlying comorbidities.
GI symptoms: Characteristics
Among GI manifestations associated with SARS-CoV-2 infection, loss of appetite or anorexia is the most commonly reported symptom. Although rates vary across studies, a meta-analysis of 60 studies found a pooled prevalence of 26.8% in patients with COVID-19. Diarrhea was the second most common symptom with a pooled prevalence of 12.5%.
A pooled analysis of clinical studies that reported diarrhea found a prevalence of 10.4% (range 2% to 50%) in patients with COVID-19. However, recent US data found higher rates ranging from 23.7% to 33.7%. Although some studies have described mild diarrhea, other studies have reported severe diarrhea and acute hemorrhagic colitis associated with COVID-19. The etiology of colitis is not known, but given the thrombotic complications associated with COVID-19, this likely represents ischemia.
Other digestive manifestations include nausea or vomiting and abdominal pain. According to US data, nausea or vomiting were found in 10.3% to 26.4% of patients with COVID-19, whereas abdominal pain was found in 8.8% to 14.5% of patients. Dysgeusia has also been reported, often in conjunction with anosmia, in up to 64% of patients with COVID-19. Interestingly, in a US study, dysgeusia and anosmia were more common among patients with GI symptoms and were independently associated with nausea and anorexia.