Anorexia and Diarrhea Top List of GI Symptoms in COVID-19 Patients

Heidi Splete

January 05, 2021

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

Patients with severe COVID-19 were significantly more likely than those with milder cases to have GI symptoms of anorexia and diarrhea, as well as abnormal liver function, based on data from a meta-analysis of more than 4,500 patients.

Previous studies have shown that liver damage "was more likely to be observed in severe patients during the process of disease," and other studies have shown varying degrees of liver insufficiency in COVID-19 patients, but gastrointestinal symptoms have not been well studied, wrote Zi-yuan Dong, MD, of China Medical University, Shenyang City, and colleagues.

In a study published in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology, the researchers identified 31 studies including 4,682 COVID-19 patients. Case collection was from Dec. 11, 2019, to Feb. 28, 2020. Median age among studies ranged from 36 to 62 years, and 55% of patients were male.

A total of 26 studies were analyzed for the prevalence of GI symptoms, specifically nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and anorexia. Of these, anorexia and diarrhea were significantly more common in COVID-19 patients, with prevalence of 17% and 8% respectively, (P < .0001 for both).

In addition, 14 of the studies included in the analysis assessed the prevalence of abnormal liver function based on increased levels of aspartate aminotransferase, alanine aminotransferase, and total bilirubin. Of these, increased alanine aminotransferase was the most common, occurring in 25% of patients, compared with increased AST (in 24%) and total bilirubin (in 13%).

When assessed by disease severity, patients with severe disease and those in the ICU were significantly more likely than general/non-ICU patients to have anorexia (odds ratio, 2.19), diarrhea (OR, 1.65), and abdominal pain (OR, 6.38). The severely ill patients were significantly more likely to have increased AST and ALT (OR, 2.98 and 2.66, respectively).

"However, there were no significant differences between severe/ICU group and general/non-ICU group for the prevalence of nausea and vomiting and liver disease," the researchers said.

The study findings were limited by several factors including the unclear classification of digestive system disease and liver disease in many of the studies, the small sample sizes, and the lack of data on pathology of the liver or colon in COVID-19 patients, the researchers noted.

More research is needed, but the findings suggest that COVID-19 could contribute to liver damage because the most significant abnormal liver function was increased ALT, they said.

Check Liver Function in Cases With GI Symptoms

"COVID patients can present asymptomatically or with nonspecific symptoms, including GI symptoms," said Ziad F. Gellad, MD, of Duke University Medical Center, Durham, N.C., in an interview. "While the focus of management naturally is directed to the pulmonary consequences of the disease, it is important to evaluate the patient holistically," he said.

"I do not think these findings have profound clinical implications because they identify relatively nonspecific symptoms that are commonly seen in patients in a number of other conditions," noted Gellad. "The management of COVID should not change, with the exception of perhaps making sure to check for abnormal liver function tests in patients that present with more typical COVID symptoms," he said.

"Additional research is needed to understand the biologic mechanism by which COVID impacts systems outside of the lungs," Gellad emphasized. "For example, there has been some very interesting work understanding the impact of COVID on the pancreas and risk for pancreatitis. That work is similarly needed to understand how COVID, outside of causing a general illness, specifically impacts the rest of the GI tract," he said.

The study was supported by the Liaoning Science and Technology Foundation. The researchers had no financial conflicts to disclose. Gellad had no financial conflicts to disclose.

SOURCE: Dong Z-Y et al. J Clin Gastroenterol. 2021 Jan. doi: 10.1097/MCG.0000000000001424.

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