COVID-19 Can Infect and Harm Digestive Organs

Authors: E.J. Mundell

 The coronavirus isn’t just attacking the lungs: New research shows it’s causing harm to the gastrointestinal tract, especially in more advanced cases of COVID-19.

A variety of imaging scans performed on hospitalized COVID-19 patients showed bowel abnormalities, according to a study published online May 11 in Radiology. Many of the effects were severe and linked with clots and impairment of blood flow.

“Some findings were typical of bowel ischemia, or dying bowel, and in those who had surgery we saw small vessel clots beside areas of dead bowel,” said study lead author Dr. Rajesh Bhayana, who works in the department of radiology at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

“Patients in the ICU can have bowel ischemia for other reasons, but we know COVID-19 can lead to clotting and small vessel injury, so bowel might also be affected by this,” Bhayana explained in a journal news release.

One expert unconnected to the new study said the findings aren’t surprising.

“Our emerging understanding of COVID-19 has found the disease to have multisystem involvement including the nervous, cardiac, vascular [excess clotting] and finally the digestive systems, among others,” said Dr. Sherif Andrawes. He directs endoscopy in the division of gastroenterology and hematology at Staten Island University in New York City.

“It seems that this disease is intricate, in the sense that it can involve multiorgan systems, rather than being a disease of the respiratory system solely,” Andrawes said.

In fact, a study published online May 13 in the journal Science Immunology has found evidence that SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind COVID-19, can infect the human digestive system.

Researchers led by Siyuan Ding of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, said their findings “highlight the intestine as a potential site of SARS-CoV-2 replication, which may contribute to local and systemic illness and overall disease progression.”

That seems to be borne out by the Boston study.

That research included 412 COVID-19 patients who were hospitalized between March 27 and April 10. They averaged 57 years of age, and 134 of them underwent abdominal imaging, including 137 radiographs, 44 ultrasounds, 42 CT scans, and one MRI.

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