Illness child on home quarantine. Boy and his teddy bear both in protective medical masks sits on windowsill and looks out window. Virus protection, coronavirus pandemic, prevention epidemic.

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WUHAN, China — Just how susceptible children are to the coronavirus pandemic has been widely debated by health officials and politicians. A new study says children who do have COVID-19 may not show the same symptoms an adult does. Researchers say the illness, which has caused respiratory distress in countless patients, tends to show up as stomach trouble in youngsters.

Researchers in China say children suffering from gastrointestinal issues like diarrhea, especially if they have a fever too, should be checked for COVID-19. The study adds that these symptoms point to the illness infecting the digestive system first.

“Most children are only mildly affected by COVID-19 and the few severe cases often have underlying health issues,” Dr. Wenbin Li from the Department of Pediatrics at Tongji Hospital said in a statement. “It is easy to miss its diagnosis in the early stage, when a child has non-respiratory symptoms or suffers from another illness.”

The study explains that the cells COVID-19 targets in the lungs are also found in a patient’s intestines. Previous studies have also shown a possible link between the virus and how it’s spread through the digestive tract.

Symptom Mystery

Researchers say they looked at five children who were all brought to hospitals for unrelated problems but all eventually tested positive for the coronavirus.

“One had a kidney stone, another a head trauma. All had pneumonia confirmed by chest CT scan before or soon after admission and then confirmed to have COVID-19,” Li explained. The doctor adds that most of the children did have one thing in common, despite their initial unrelated symptoms.

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“Four of the five cases had digestive tract symptoms as the first manifestation of this disease.”

The study hopes finding this potential new route of infection will help health care workers diagnose, isolate, and treat patients quicker.

The ACE2 Receptor

Multiple studies have concluded that the coronavirus enters the cells through the ACE2 gene. The gene is made in the digestive system. Li warns that this could mean there are other ways of spreading COVID-19.

“This suggests that COVID-19 might infect patients not only through the respiratory tract in the form of air droplets, but also through the digestive tract by contact or fecal-oral transmission,” the researcher explained.

Li says more work needs to be done with coronavirus patients, especially children, who don’t show the typical respiratory symptoms.

The study was published in the journal Frontiers in Pediatrics.

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About Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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