- People who got COVID-19 were more likely to develop stomach troubles, a new research paper found.
- Even those who were mildly ill had a higher risk of GI issues in the following year.
- Acid reflux, constipation, and diarrhea were common, the researchers found.
Dave Hockaday, a COVID long-hauler in the UK, told Insider that he developed "burning" acid reflux and "horrible nausea" after contracting COVID in 2020. Although he had a fairly strong stomach before he got sick, he found himself unable to eat his favorite foods and drinks — pizza, beer, coffee, and chocolate — without feeling awful afterwards.
Hockaday's experience isn't unique. In fact, he is one of the thousands of people who got COVID-19 in 2020 who have experienced persistent digestive problems like acid reflux, stomach cramps, constipation, and diarrhea long after their infections, according to a study published Tuesday in Nature Communications .
The new study found that those who were infected with the virus, even people who had mild cases, were significantly more likely to have stomach troubles compared to those who did not get COVID.
Researchers compared the medical records of more than 154,000 US veterans who got COVID with about 5.6 million peers who did not contract the virus. They found 9,605 people who had COVID later experienced issues affecting the digestive system, pancreas, or liver.
The risk of long-term gastrointestinal issues increased for those who were hospitalized with more severe COVID infections. On average, people who had COVID were 36% more likely to have long-term gastrointestinal issues compared to those who were not infected, according to the New York Times .
The most common stomach-related issue was gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a type of acid reflux. Other commonly reported symptoms included abdominal pain, constipation, and diarrhea.
Researchers aren't yet sure why the stomach is impacted by COVID
Hockaday eventually saw a functional nutritionist to learn more about the bacteria in his digestive tract, known as the gut microbiome . Studies have found that disruptions to the microbiome may contribute to gastrointestinal disorders including GERD and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) .
The coronavirus may interfere with the natural balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut, leaving patients at risk for secondary infections, according to a separate study published in Nature Communications in November 2022.
However, scientists are still learning more about the effects of COVID-19 on gut health .
The researchers in the recent study hypothesize that the chronic inflammation associated with COVID could play a role in lingering GI symptoms. It's possible that some viral fragments remain in the digestive tract after the initial infection resolves, causing continued inflammation in the stomach and intestines.
They also noted that the lining of the small intestine may be especially permeable to the virus, allowing it to enter the gastrointestinal system with ease. More research is needed to better understand how the coronavirus affects the body long-term, and how doctors can treat the symptoms of long COVID .
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