Even mild COVID-19 disease may increase the risk of multiple digestive illnesses up to one year after the infection, according to a new study.
A growing body of evidence suggests that COVID-19 has long-term consequences on multiple organ systems. Those who survive the infection are at a higher risk of cardiovascular diseases, kidney dysfunction, and metabolic illnesses, such as type 2 diabetes.
In the study published in BMC Medicine, researchers from Southern Medical University in China looked at the rates of digestive diseases 30 days or more after infection with SRS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
They used the U.K. Biobank data from 112,311 people who had COVID-19, a contemporary comparison group of 359,671, and a pre-COVID group of 370,979 participants.
The participants were aged 37 to 73 years old. The COVID-19 patients were diagnosed between 30 January 2020 and 30 October 2022.
COVID-19 infections were associated with a 41% higher risk for gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), 38% for gastrointestinal dysfunction, 36% for pancreatic disease, 35% for severe liver disease, 27% for nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), 23% for peptic ulcers, and 21% for gallbladder disease.
The risk of GI dysfunction and GERD remained increased one year after the infection. Meanwhile, the elevated gallbladder disease risk persisted within 6 months of post-infection.
There was no increase in the risk of other digestive diseases after a follow-up period of 6 months.
Even mild infections are dangerous
The more severe acute COVID infection, the higher the risk for developing GERD, the study found.
GERD occurs when the stomach acid repeatedly flows back into the tube connecting mouth and stomach. The condition may cause heartburn after eating, the sensation of a lump in the throat, and upper abdominal or chest pain, among other symptoms.
The study found that the risk of GI dysfunction, peptic ulcers, GERD, and NAFLD increased even in patients with mild COVID-19 symptoms who were not hospitalized.
The authors wrote: “This underscores the significance of ensuring that healthcare systems are equipped to provide appropriate care to this population of mild cases, as well as varying degrees of COVID-19 severity.”
However, due to its observational nature, the study does not prove that COVID-19 causes the long-term risk of digestive system diseases; it just shows an association. Moreover, the individuals enrolled in the U.K. Biobank study are healthier than the general population.
It is not fully understood how SARS-CoV-2 infections may increase the risk of digestive diseases. One of the possible mechanisms may be the fecal-oral transmission of the virus, leading to viral infection of the digestive tract.
After the acute phase, the infection usually triggers irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which causes long-term disorders of the digestive tract.
While scientists are still learning about long-term COVID-19 effects and recovery from them, it is crucial to protect yourself by getting a vaccine.