BETHESDA, Md.—Digestive symptoms are common in COVID-19, occurring as the chief complaint in nearly half of patients presenting to hospital, according to a new descriptive, cross-sectional multicenter study from China by investigators from the Wuhan Medical Treatment Expert Group for COVID-19. The study was published today in The American Journal of Gastroenterology.
Most patients with COVID-19 present with the typical respiratory symptoms and signs, but early experience with the outbreak in Wuhan has revealed that many patients experienced digestive symptoms as their chief complaint.
“Clinicians must bear in mind that digestive symptoms, such as diarrhea, may be a presenting feature of COVID-19, and that the index of suspicion may need to be raised earlier in these cases rather than waiting for respiratory symptoms to emerge,” the authors wrote.
The authors underscored the importance of the finding that COVID-19 patients can present with gastrointestinal symptoms as their chief complaint. “If clinicians solely monitor for respiratory symptoms to establish case definitions for COVID-19, they may miss cases initially presenting with extra-pulmonary symptoms, or the disease may not be diagnosed later until respiratory symptoms emerge,” they warned.
Compared to COVID-19 patients without digestive symptoms, those with digestive symptoms have a longer time from onset to admission and a worse clinical outcome, according to the analysis by investigators from several hospitals and research centers in China. The investigators gathered data on 204 patients with COVID-19 presenting to three hospitals in Hubei province from January 18 to February 28. Diagnosis was confirmed by real-time RT-PCR. Clinical characteristics, laboratory data and treatment information for the patients were included in the final analysis.
“In this study, COVID-19 patients with digestive symptoms have a worse clinical outcome and higher risk of mortality compared to those without digestive symptoms, emphasizing the importance of including symptoms like diarrhea to suspect COVID-19 early in the disease course before respiratory symptoms develop,” said Brennan M.R. Spiegel, M.D., MSHS, FACG, co-editor-in-chief of The American Journal of Gastroenterology. “This may lead to earlier diagnosis of COVID-19, which can lead to earlier treatment and more expeditious quarantine to minimize transmission from people who otherwise remain undiagnosed.”
Patients with digestive symptoms had a significantly longer time from onset to admission than patients without digestive symptoms (9.0 days versus 7.3 days). This may indicate that patients presenting with digestive symptoms sought care later because they did not yet suspect COVID-19 in the absence of respiratory symptoms, like cough or shortness of breath. Patients with digestive symptoms had a variety of manifestations, such as anorexia (83.8%), diarrhea (29.3%), vomiting (0.8%), and abdominal pain (0.4%).
“We found that 99 patients (48.5%) were admitted to the hospital with one or more digestive symptoms as their chief complaint. Of these 99 patients, 92 developed respiratory symptoms along with digestive symptoms, and 7 presented with only digestive symptoms in the absence of respiratory symptoms,” the study notes. “Among the 105 patients without digestive symptoms, 85 presented only with respiratory symptoms, and 20 neither had respiratory nor digestive symptoms as their chief complaint.”
As the severity of the disease increased, digestive symptoms became more pronounced. Patients without digestive symptoms were more likely to be cured and discharged than patients with digestive symptoms (60% versus 34.3%). Laboratory data revealed no significant liver injury, although other studies have shown signs of liver involvement; more research is required to understand the impact of COVID-19 on liver function.
“It remains unclear why there were differences in mortality between patients with vs. without digestive symptoms,” adds the article. “One possibility is that digestive symptoms indicate viral load and replication within the gastrointestinal tract, which leads to more severe disease.”