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Digestive Problems and COVID-19: Symptoms to Look Out For

There are various ways to ease gastrointestinal symptoms if you have COVID-19, be it with modern or traditional methods. Explore your options here.

A doctor giving medication to a patient

Getting a fever, dry cough, flu and even shortness of breath are common symptoms of COVID-19, or any viral infection. However, you might also experience digestive problems like diarrhoea, nausea, and vomiting, if your infection is severe. 

A study showed that around one in five people who tested positive for COVID-19 had at least one gastrointestinal symptom including constant stomach pain. Out of those who were hospitalised, 25.9% had gastrointestinal issues. 

Fortunately, there are multiple ways you can do to ease these symptoms of digestive problems, be it with modern medicine or Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Read on to explore your options.

How COVID-19 Affects Your Gastrointestinal System

Any virus that infects your body will destroy healthy cells and multiply. COVID-19 mainly targets the cells that line your airways, making it hard for you to breathe, and which can lead to pneumonia. Additionally, this infection can also harm your digestive tract and liver tissues. 

Look out for the first signs of gastrointestinal symptoms if you test positive for COVID-19. A lack of appetite is the most common symptom, followed by a loss of taste and smell. Up to 34% of patients experience diarrhoea which lasts for about three to five days. 

If you’re experiencing any digestive problems, you are more likely to have a positive stool test for COVID-19. It might also take you a little longer to recover compared to those without gastrointestinal symptoms.

Illustration of the human body’s digestive system
Gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhoea, loss of appetite and vomiting are common if you test positive for COVID-19.

Gastrointestinal Symptoms Related to COVID-19

1. Diarrhoea

Diarrhoea is the most common symptom in this case, followed by poor appetite, bloating, indigestion, abdominal or epigastric distention, and ironically, even constipation, which is a rare symptom.

According to a study published by the American Journal of Gastroenterology, out of a total of 117 people with gastric distress, about 19.4% saw diarrhoea as their earliest symptom. 

If you are unlucky, you might also develop gastrointestinal symptoms with respiratory symptoms, worsening your illness further.

2. Vomiting

Vomiting is one of the common digestive problems in people with severe symptoms of COVID-19. According to a study, about 3.6% to 15.9% of adults experienced vomiting. However, a high number of 66.7% of children experience vomiting. Researchers analysed that the coronavirus affects a child’s gastrointestinal system more than an adults.

3. Loss of appetite

Lacking an appetite is common among COVID-19 patients. There are many patients who reported that they lost their appetite completely, along with their taste and smell. 

One way to combat this is to stay hydrated and eat when you can as your body requires the energy from food to fight the virus. This is because a lack of food and water may cause nausea and abdominal pain.

In one study, about 13.7% of patients experienced gastrointestinal bleeding as a severe symptom. If this happens, hospitalisation is necessary. Consult your doctor right away if you experience constant stomach or abdominal pains.

Ease Digestive Problems with TCM

Physicians who practice TCM can help with symptoms of digestive problems through herbal medication, acupuncture, moxibustion, cupping and even tuina. “These treatments are all formulated carefully by TCM physicians to address the unique body constitution of each individual patient. It’s best to always consult a TCM physician first for a proper assessment,” advised Senior Physician Brandon Yew.

Here are some TCM herbal formulations that your physician might recommend:

Xiang sha liu jun zi (香砂六君子) 

Shen ling bai zhu san (参苓白术散) 

Bu zhong yi qi tang (补中益气汤) 

Xiao yao san (逍遥散) 

Chai hu shu gan san (柴胡疏肝散) 

Jian pi wan (健脾丸) 

Bao he wan (保和丸)  

Ban xia xie xin tang (半夏泻心汤) 

Gan lu xiao du dan (甘露消毒丹) 

Ge gen qin lian tang (葛根芩连汤) 

Huo xiang zheng qi san (藿香正气散) 

Tong xie yao fang (痛泻要方) 

Ping wei san (平胃散) 

Xiang lian wan (香连丸) 

Wu mei wan (乌梅丸) 

Zhi shi xiao pi wan (枳实消痞丸) 

Zhi shi dao zhi wan (枳实导滞丸) 

Mu xiang bing lang wan (木香槟榔丸) 

Do bear in mind that these herbal formulas are meant for varying body constitutions corresponding to different pathologies behind gastrointestinal issues. These can be complex to treat. It is strongly advised to not purchase any of them to self-medicate without first consulting a licensed TCM practitioner for professional guidance,” advises physician Yew.  

The above mentioned advice is especially important for those who are unvaccinated, aged 12 and below, or are elderly, immunocompromised and suffering from multiple chronic conditions.

A physician putting pressure on an acupressure point to release tension
Practice acupressure massage at home to ease gastrointestinal symptoms or see a physician for help.

Acupuncture to help with Digestive Problems

Acupressure is an easy self-help and harmless remedy which you can practice at home. Place your fingers or use a blunt object like a massage stick at certain acupoints and apply an appropriate amount of pressure to elicit a tolerable sensation of soreness or tenderness in order for it to be effective, advises physician Yew.  

“Simultaneously, massage in both clockwise and anticlockwise circular motion for 20 times each. Repeat for at least three minutes per acupoint,” he adds. 

Acupoints to Massage

These are the acupoints that you can target at home to ease symptoms. 

He gu (LI4, 合谷): On the dorsum of the hand, between the first and second metacarpal bones.

Nei guan (PC6, 內关): On the palmar aspect of the forearm, three fingers-breadth above the transverse crease of the wrist, between the tendons of the the palmaris longus muscle and the flexor carpi radialis muscle.

Tian shu (ST25, 天枢): On the abdomen, three fingers-breadth away from the frontal midline, the same level as the umbilicus.

Shui dao (ST28, 水道): Four fingers-breadth directly below ST25.

Shang ju xu (ST37, 上巨虛): On the anterior aspect of the lower leg, eight fingers-breadth below the outer depression of the knee joint, one finger-breadth from the anterior crest of the tibia.

Xia ju xu (ST39, 下巨虛): One finger-breadth directly below ST37.

Zu san li (ST36, 足三里): On the anterior aspect of the lower leg, four fingers-breadth below the outer depression of the knee joint, one finger-breadth (middle finger) from the anterior crest of the tibia.

Zhong wan (RN12, 中脘): On the anterior median line of the upper abdomen, mid-point between the tip of the xiphoid process and the umbilicus.  

Yin ling quan (SP9, 阴陵泉): On the medial aspect of the lower leg, in the depression of the lower border of the medial condyle of the tibia.

Visit a licensed TCM physician for a better understanding of acupoint massages. Additionally, you can explore the different options available to ease gastrointestinal symptoms caused by COVID-19, and to speed up recovery. 

References

  1. Healthline. 2020. Diarrhea and Other Confirmed Gastrointestinal Symptoms of COVID-19. [online].  [Accessed 28 April 2022]
  2. National Library of Medicine. 2020. Digestive Symptoms in COVID-19 Patients With Mild Disease Severity: Clinical Presentation, Stool Viral RNA Testing, and Outcomes. [online].  [Accessed 28 April 2022]
  1. Medical News Today. 2022. Gastrointestinal symptoms of COVID-19: What we know and why it is important. [online].  [Accessed 28 April 2022]

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