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Heather Hanks
Written by Heather Hanks

Reviewed by Dr Jessica Gunawan and Physician Brandon Yew on July 29, 2022

How Does COVID-19 Affect Your GI Tract?

If you have an underlying GI tract problem, then COVID-19 could worsen your symptoms or give you new ones. Here's how COVID-19 affects your gut and how to deal with the diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting.

Digestive problems min scaled

GI tract problems can be indicative of many health complications. Common examples may include irritable bowel syndrome, celiac disease, and lactose intolerance.

But did you know that COVID-19 may affect your digestive system, too? In fact, one study found that around 53% of people who tested positive for COVID-19 had at least one gastrointestinal symptom, including constant stomach pain. Among those who were hospitalized, 25.9% had gastrointestinal issues. 

In this guide, we’ll explain how COVID-19 affects your GI tract, and how to reduce symptoms, such as nausea, constipation, diarrhea, or vomiting.

How Does COVID-19 Affect The GI Tract?

A sick woman lying down with one hand on her head and a thermometer in her other hand, checking her temperature
Many people with COVID-19 experience common flu symptoms, such as fever and congestion, in addition to GI tract complications.

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 diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting, if your infection is severe. 

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 diarrhea that 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.

Common COVID-19 GI Tract Symptoms

Here are some GI tract symptoms that may be related to COVID-19:

1. Diarrhea

Diarrhea is the most common symptom, in this case, followed by poor appetite, bloating, indigestion, abdominal pain 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 diarrhea as their earliest symptom. 

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, 66.7% of children experience vomiting. Researchers concluded that the coronavirus affects a child’s gastrointestinal system more than adults.

3. Loss of appetite

A young woman looking down at her food after losing her appetite
COVID-19 may cause loss of appetite.

Loss of 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, hospitalization is necessary. Consult your doctor right away if you experience constant stomach or abdominal pains.

How To Use TCM To Ease GI Tract Symptoms

Physicians who practice Traditional Chinese Medicine (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:

  • Bu Zhong Yi Qi Tang 
  • Xiao Yao San 
  • Jian Pi Wan 
  • Bao He Wan  
  • Gan Lu Xiao Du Dan
  • Ping Wei San 

“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.

Additionally, you can use ginseng tea to help soothe nausea and vomiting. Meanwhile, research shows that probiotics may help reduce diarrhea in children to restore GI tract health.

If your child won’t take a probiotic supplement, you can try giving them yogurt. Adults, too, can benefit from getting more healthy bacteria in their diet. Additionally, a high-quality enzyme drink can help improve gastrointestinal health and reduce some of the GI symptoms associated with COVID, such as upset stomach, constipation, or diarrhea.

Acupoints That Support The GI Tract

“Acupressure is an easy self-help remedy 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,” 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. 

These are the acupoints that you can target at home to ease GI tract symptoms:

  • He Gu (LI4)
  • Nei Guan (PC6)
  • Tian Shu (ST25)
  • Shui Dao (ST28)
  • Shang Ju Xu (ST37)
  • Xia Ju Xu (ST39)
  • Zu San Li (ST36)
  • Zhong Wan (RN12) 
  • Yin Ling Quan (SP9)

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 speed up recovery. 

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