New COVID-Related GI Symptoms Common in IBD Patients

Heidi Splete, MDedge News

September 03, 2021

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

Death from COVID-19 was not more likely among patients with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) who had COVID-19 who developed new GI symptoms after becoming infected, according to international registry data from nearly 3,000 adults.

Dr Ryan C. Ungaro

Although GI symptoms may arise in the general population of COVID-19 patients, data on the association between GI symptoms and COVID-19 in patients with IBD are limited, as are data on the association of GI symptoms and COVID-19 outcomes in this population, Ryan C. Ungaro, MD, of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, and colleagues wrote.

In a study published in Inflammatory Bowel Diseases, the researchers identified 2,917 adults with IBD who developed COVID-19 using the Surveillance Epidemiology of Coronavirus Under Research Exclusion in Inflammatory Bowel Disease (SECURE-IBD) database, a global registry created to understand COVID-19 outcomes in IBD patients.

The researchers recorded all new GI symptoms experienced by the patients while they were infected with COVID-19. Overall, 764 (26.2%) experienced new GI symptoms and 2,153 did not. The most common symptom was diarrhea, reported by 80% of the patients, followed by abdominal pain in 34%. Nausea and vomiting were reported by 24% and 12%, respectively, of all patients.

The average age of the patients was 43 years for those with no new GI symptoms and 40 for those without new GI symptoms; overall, approximately half were women and approximately three-quarters were White. Overall, 50% of those with new GI symptoms were in remission, as was the case for 58.4% of those without.

IBD patients who developed new GI symptoms were significantly more likely to be women, of Asian race, older, or have at least one comorbidity.

The researchers found no difference in new GI symptoms in patients with Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. "Patients on any medication – but in particular [tumor necrosis factor] antagonist monotherapy – were less likely to report new GI symptoms." they wrote.

Although IBD patients with new GI symptoms were significantly more likely than were those without new GI symptoms to be hospitalized for COVID-19 in bivariate analyses (31.4% vs. 19.2%; P < .001), they were not more likely to need a ventilator or intensive care (5.8% vs. 4.6%; P < .18). In a multivariate analysis, IBD patients with new GI symptoms had no greater risk of death from COVID-19 than did those without new GI symptoms (adjusted odds ratio, 0.72; 95% confidence interval, 0.38-1.36).

The new-onset GI symptoms common to IBD patients with COVID-19 are not likely caused by underlying disease activity, given the number of patients in remission who reported new GI symptoms, the researchers wrote.

The study findings were limited by several factors including the retrospective design, potential reporting bias, and reliance on physician global assessment for disease assessment, the researchers noted. However, the results were strengthened by the large sample size, by the ability to assess GI symptoms before and after COVID-19, and by the evaluation of GI symptoms and COVID-19 outcomes.

"In summary, new GI symptoms are common in IBD patients with COVID-19 and are not associated with an increased risk of death due to COVID-19," the researchers concluded. "Our findings suggest that an increase in GI symptoms in IBD patients should prompt consideration of a COVID-19 diagnosis."

Data to Guide Clinical Care

"There are several potential causes for common GI symptoms, such as diarrhea and abdominal pain, among patients with IBD," Shirley Cohen-Mekelburg, MD, of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, said in an interview. "These can be the initial presentation of an IBD flare, a noninflammatory cause such as irritable bowel syndrome, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, or an infection such as Clostridioides difficile or SARS-CoV-2. Each of these diagnoses require different treatments. An IBD flare may require escalation of immunosuppressive medications such as biologics or corticosteroids, which can cause harm in the context of an untreated infection. Therefore, any guidance that will increase health care providers' awareness of the possible causes of similar GI symptoms is important in caring for our patients with IBD. This is especially true in context of a newer entity such as COVID-19 with which we are overall less familiar."

Cohen-Meckelburg said the lack of association between GI symptoms and death in IBD is reassuring. "It is interesting to note that GI symptoms, and particularly new diarrhea, were very common among patients with IBD and COVID-19," she added.

"Every study has its limitations, which need to be considered in interpreting findings," Cohen-Meckelburg noted. "SECURE-IBD has provided great insight into COVID-19 infections among patients with IBD. However, the registry relies on individuals reporting cases, so there is the potential for underreporting, particularly with less symptomatic or subclinical cases."

"Health care providers who treat patients with IBD should have a high-index of suspicion for SARS-CoV-2 infections when patients with IBD present with GI symptoms," said Cohen-Meckelburg. "The data from the current study may help us to consider standard testing to rule out COVID-19 as an alternative diagnosis when considering whether to treat patients with IBD who develop new GI symptoms for an IBD flare. This would be similar to how we currently test for C. difficile and other enteric infections before treating IBD flares.

"This approach – considering the possibility of COVID-19 in the context of new GI symptoms – is consistent with the AGA's published guidelines and best practices," said David Leiman, MD, MSHP, of Duke University, Durham, N.C., and Chair of the AGA's Quality Committee. "Clinicians should also be aware of the possibility for variation in implementation of this approach, with some patients potentially at risk for disparate testing practices." As outlined by the AGA's Quality Committee, tracking adherence to this clinical approach through ongoing quality improvement may limit the development of such gaps in care.

The study was supported in part by the Helmsley Charitable Trust with additional funding provided by Pfizer, Takeda, Janssen, AbbVie, Lilly, Genentech, Boehringer Ingelheim, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Celtrion, and Arenapharm. Lead author Ungaro disclosed serving as an advisory board member or consultant for AbbVie, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Janssen, Eli Lilly, Pfizer, and Takeda and research support from AbbVie, Boehringer Ingelheim, and Pfizer. Other coauthors disclosed similar relationships with other pharmaceutical companies. Cohen-Mekelburg and Leiman had no financial conflicts to disclose.

This article originally appeared on GI & Hepatology News, the official newspaper of the AGA Institute.


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