How COVID-19 can mimic gastrointestinal cancer

June 17, 2020 | by Edward-Elmhurst Health

As more is learned about COVID-19, experts say gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms — such as diarrhea or nausea — can be early warning signs of the virus.

A recent multi-hospital study in the United States showed that two-thirds of patients with COVID-19 experienced some type of stomach or GI symptom. Some early reports from China also indicated that nearly half of COVID-19 patients also had some GI symptoms.

Individuals with gastrointestinal or stomach cancer may not only experience more severe GI symptoms with COVID-19, they may also have difficult ascertaining if their symptoms are due to the cancer or COVID-19. Many people with cancer also experience diarrhea, nausea or vomiting during their cancer treatment.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), symptoms of coronavirus may develop within 2 to 14 days of exposure. Symptoms of COVID-19 may include:

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion
  • Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea

It’s worth noting that GI symptoms such as nausea, vomiting or diarrhea are so common among people with cancer that many also see a gastroenterologist to help deal with their symptoms.

Additional symptoms of GI cancer include:

  • Feeling full or bloated after eating a small amount of food
  • Bloody stools
  • Stomach pain
  • Changes in bowel movements
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Problems swallowing

While it may be difficult to tell if your GI symptoms are due to cancer or a COVID-19 infection, you should contact your doctor immediately if you are experiencing any symptoms. If you believe you’ve been exposed to someone with COVID-19, be sure to alert your physician so they can properly prepare for your office visit.

Because cancer patients are at higher risk for COVID-19, experts urge them to take extra caution. The CDC recommends frequent hand washing, covering your cough or sneeze, wearing a face mask, routine wiping down of frequently-touched hard surfaces in your home, practicing social distancing and avoiding large crowds to help prevent the spread of the virus.

If you believe you’ve been exposed to the virus, contact your doctor immediately and self-isolate in your home by staying in a separate bedroom if possible.

If you feel ill, Edward-Elmhurst Health is offering screening options for COVID-19, including a symptom checker to advise you on what to do next and a COVID-19 Nurse Triage Line (331-221-5199) to see if you meet testing requirements. We are also offering Video Visits and E-Visits for COVID-19 symptoms.

For updates on our planning and response efforts as we work to stop the spread of COVID-19, please check EEHealth.org/coronavirus.

The information in this article may change at any time due to the changing landscape of this pandemic. Read the latest on COVID-19.

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