Diarrhea: Is It COVID-19 or Something Else?

Kenneth Knowles, MD
Medically reviewed by Kenneth Knowles, MDNovember 24th, 2020
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Despite years passing since the initial outbreak of COVID-19, there is still a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the virus. This is largely due to the fact that not everyone who contracts COVID-19 experiences the same symptoms, and emerging variants continue to keep doctors and researchers on their toes.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has formed a fairly comprehensive list of symptoms associated with the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) and its variants, but it can still be difficult to know whether certain symptoms—like diarrhea—are a direct result of COVID-19 or something else entirely. If you’re experiencing diarrhea and are unsure about your chances of having COVID-19, the following information can provide some clarity.

Does COVID-19 Cause Diarrhea?

The short answer to this question is “yes,” but not always. Some research indicates that SARS-CoV-2 can affect cells in the gut, disrupt normal digestive function, and cause ensuing gastrointestinal (GI) distress. Studies show that when COVID-19 causes diarrhea, it typically occurs early on in the illness and may worsen over the course of a few days. In cases of “long haul” COVID-19 and post-COVID syndrome, bouts of diarrhea may come and go for months.

Still, the majority of people with COVID-19 do not experience diarrhea. It’s also possible for diarrhea to be the only noticeable symptom of COVID-19, although this is rare. The incidence of GI symptoms appears to increase with age—diarrhea is an uncommon symptom among young children.

If you know that you’ve recently come into direct contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 and you begin having diarrhea, especially if in addition to other symptoms, there is a possibility that you’ve contracted the virus. Other symptoms of COVID-19 to monitor for include:

It’s important to call 911 and inform the operator of possible COVID-19 exposure if you or someone around you experiences severe COVID-19 symptoms. This may include:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Sudden confusion
  • Lingering chest pain or pressure
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Skin, lips, or nail beds that appear blue or greyish

Flu, COVID-19 & Diarrhea

A number of different viruses, not just SARS-CoV-2, can lead to unpleasant GI symptoms like diarrhea. Diarrhea is a common symptom of illness because it is your body’s way of quickly clearing viruses, bacteria, and/or toxins from the digestive tract. However, diarrhea is more closely associated with illnesses besides COVID-19 (such as influenza), and it can also be experienced when an individual is not sick at all.

Unfortunately, many COVID-19 symptoms also overlap with influenza (the flu). This can make it even more difficult to distinguish whether your diarrhea is a sign of the novel coronavirus or the flu, although there are some key differences between the flu and COVID-19. For example, people with COVID-19 may not show symptoms until much later after contraction, and these symptoms may be very mild. The flu tends to cause severe symptoms very quickly and rarely involves shortness of breath or loss of taste or smell.

It’s important to remember that no internet article can diagnose your symptoms. To find answers to your health questions and be absolutely sure what’s to blame for your diarrhea, your best course of action is to receive a COVID-19 or flu test from a medical professional.

Other Common Causes of Diarrhea

Of course, diarrhea can be related to many other conditions aside from COVID-19 and the flu. Unexpected diarrhea can be a result of a change in medication, food that has expired or that you’re intolerant to, drinking too much alcohol, feeling stressed, heavy exertion or exercises like running, and a variety of other scenarios. If you’re experiencing diarrhea without any other symptoms, then there’s a good chance that it is not due to COVID-19. However, this doesn’t mean that you should ignore your bowel issues.

Frequent diarrhea can lead to severe dehydration, so it’s important that you take the right precautions and rehydrate. Common signs of dehydration to look out for include excess thirst, lack of urination, dry mouth, dry skin, weakness, dizziness, and dark urine.

Water is a good way to replace fluids following diarrhea, but it doesn’t contain salts and electrolytes—minerals such as sodium and potassium—that are essential for your body to rehydrate and function. Because of this, you should also try to consume beverages like fruit juices and sports drinks for potassium or broths for sodium. Since many fruit juices and sports drinks contain large amounts of sugar, you can consider mixing them with water. Make sure to contact your primary care physician before adjusting your diet while experiencing GI symptoms; certain fruit juices, such as apple juice, can make diarrhea worse.

Receive Prompt, In-Home Treatment From DispatchHealth

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If you need medical expertise but are hesitant to leave your home and risk infecting yourself or others, DispatchHealth can come straight to you. We offer prompt and professional in-home medical care, so you don’t have to go anywhere to receive the treatment you need. Not only do we provide treatment for diarrhea and dehydration, but we also offer COVID-19 testing and treatment. If you suspect that you’ve contracted SARS-CoV-2, our team can provide the support you need in the comfort and safety of your own home.

The well-being of our patients and staff is our primary focus here at DispatchHealth. That’s why we’re taking extra precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the communities we serve, making sure you feel comfortable having members of the DispatchHealth team in your home. Our medical professionals sport a plethora of personal protection equipment (PPE) and thoroughly clean cars and equipment between visits to ensure the safety of our patients.

If you’re suffering from severe diarrhea, dehydration, symptoms of COVID-19 or another urgent illness or injury, contact DispatchHealth today through our website or by phone.

Sources

DispatchHealth relies only on authoritative sources, including medical associations, research institutions, and peer-reviewed medical studies.

Sources referenced in this article:

  1. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/symptoms-testing/symptoms.html
  2. https://share.upmc.com/2015/05/causes-of-diarrhea/
  3. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/flu-vs-covid19.htm
  4. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/diarrhea/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20352246
  5. https://covid.joinzoe.com/post/covid-symptoms-diarrhoea
  6. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/if-you-are-sick/steps-when-sick.html
The DispatchHealth blog provides tips, tricks and advice for improving lives through convenient, comfortable healthcare.
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