COVID-19 causes IBS? Virus now linked to chronic gut conditions

BOLOGNA, Italy — Having COVID-19 is linked to an increased risk of developing chronic gut conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), according to new research from the University of Bologna.

The findings add to the long list of symptoms and ailments associated with a coronavirus infection.

“The data we collected show that those who have contracted COVID-19 experience gastrointestinal symptoms more frequently than those who have not been affected by it,” explains Giovanni Barbara, full professor at the Department of Medical and Surgical Sciences at the University of Bologna and coordinator of the study, in a statement. “Given the vast spread of COVID-19 globally, we should therefore expect an increase in diagnoses related to gut-brain interaction disorders.”

Previous research confirms that viral infections can affect the gastrointestinal system, but whether coronavirus specifically could lead to GI disease was largely unknown.

Coronavirus / COVID-19
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Italian researchers sought to change this by conducting a survey among patients hospitalized for a COVID-19 infection. The study assessed the prevalence of GI symptoms and gut-brain interaction disorders following treatment. The work included 2,183 patients hospitalized in 36 facilities across 14 countries: Italy, Bangladesh, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, India, Macedonia, Malaysia, Romania, Russian Federation, Serbia, Spain, Sweden, and Turkey. Patients were evaluated upon admission and then followed up with for the next full year in order to compare their condition with that of uninfected patients.

The survey shows that about 59% of those those hospitalized for COVID-19 reported GI symptoms more frequently compared to 39.7% in the control group. The findings also reveal that new IBS diagnoses appeared more often among patients. These diagnoses also often coexisted with allergies, breathing difficulties during hospitalization, as well as chronic intake of proton pump inhibitors, which reduce acid production in the stomach. Further, at 6 months and 12 months post-hospitalization, anxiety and depression were more prevalent too.

“We know that the SARS-CoV-2 virus can also infect the gastrointestinal tract, and this confirms the possibility that COVID-19 can lead to the development of irritable bowel syndrome,” explains Giovanni Marasco, a researcher at the Department of Medical and Surgical Sciences at the University of Bologna and first author of the study. “Traces of the coronavirus were indeed found in the small intestine even six months after infection: this leads us to believe that the prolonged state of inflammation and activation of the immune system may lead to the development of the gastrointestinal symptoms that were observed.”

As scientists around the world continue to unravel more about just how much COVID-19 affects the body, these findings add to the bigger picture. The report emphasizes the urgent need to accelerate efforts to develop strategies to prevent and treat the long-term health effects after COVID-19 infection.

The findings are published in the journal Gut.

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About the Author

Shyla Cadogan, RD

Shyla Cadogan is a DMV-Based acute care Registered Dietitian. She holds specialized interests in integrative nutrition and communicating nutrition concepts in a nuanced, approachable way.

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