The novel coronavirus, or SARS-CoV-2, is a highly contagious coronavirus that has spread worldwide since its discovery in December 2019. The resulting illness is COVID-19, which has numerous symptoms and may also cause diarrhea.
Coronaviruses are a type of virus that can trigger illnesses in humans and some animals. According to United Kingdom Research and Innovation, seven different types of coronavirus have been found in people, including those responsible for severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), and COVID-19 epidemics.
Keep reading to learn more about coronaviruses and diarrhea, including how to know if a person’s diarrhea is due to COVID-19 or another gastrointestinal issue.
All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date.
People with COVID-19 report a wide range of symptoms, ranging from mild to severe. Of these, the most common include fever, a cough, shortness of breath, and fatigue.
However, some studies show that many people with the disease also experience gastrointestinal issues such as nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea.
Sometimes, they can even occur before people develop more common signs of COVID-19, such as a fever or lower respiratory tract symptoms.
For example, one study found that around 10% of patients presented with diarrhea and nausea 1–2 days before developing fever and shortness of breath.
Some people may experience gastrointestinal issues as the only sign of COVID-19, without more common flu-like symptoms.
In one early study of 116 confirmed COVID-19 patients in the United States, 31.9% reported gastrointestinal symptoms. Over 22% of study participants said they experienced a loss of appetite, 12% had nausea and vomiting, and 12% had diarrhea, although 89% described these symptoms as mild.
There is evidence that suggests the feces of COVID‐19 patients may be able to transmit the disease. The study also states that the feces could remain infectious even after throat swab tests indicate a person is no longer positive for the virus. That said, other researchers are calling for more in-depth studies in order to understand whether feces genuinely contributes to virus transmission
If a person has diarrhea and they suspect that it may be COVID-19 related, they should stay separated from other people as much as possible.
If possible, they should also not use the same bathroom and bedroom as other household members. Healthcare professionals should also take extra care if they encounter feces of those with or recovered from COVID-19.
The main symptom of diarrhea is passing loose, watery stools three or more times a day or at a more frequent rate than usual for an individual.
According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), a person with this condition may also have one or more of the following symptoms:
- an urgent need to use the bathroom
- loss of control of bowel movements
- pain in the abdomen
People with diarrhea due to some infections may also experience:
- bloody stools
- light-headedness and dizziness
There are three types of diarrhea:
- Acute diarrhea is common but typically lasts 1–2 days and goes away on its own. The NIDDK suggest there are around 179 million U.S. cases of acute diarrhea each year.
- Persistent diarrhea lasts longer than 2 weeks but less than 4 weeks.
- Chronic diarrhea typically lasts at least 4 weeks, but symptoms may be continual, or they could come and go.
Chronic diarrhea is triggered by different conditions than those that trigger acute diarrhea. In many instances, doctors do not find the reason for acute diarrhea, as cases usually resolve by themselves within 4 days, so finding the cause may not be required.
Most of the time, infections, travelers’ diarrhea, or some side effects of medications may be responsible for acute diarrhea.
Diarrhea and COVID-19
Around 80% of people who contract COVID-19 will experience mild symptoms that do not requite hospital treatment.
However, if diarrhea or other gastrointestinal problems accompany any of the below symptoms, a person should self-isolate and contact a doctor or healthcare provider.
- fever or chills
- shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- muscle or body aches
- new loss of taste or smell
- sore throat
- congestion or runny nose
People with COVID-19 should also follow the latest national guidance on self-isolation.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advise that if someone shows any of the following symptoms, they should seek emergency medical care immediately:
- trouble breathing
- persistent pain or pressure in the chest
- new confusion
- inability to wake or stay awake
- bluish lips or face
If a person believes they have symptoms of COVID-19 or they have come into contact with someone who has this disease, they must not visit their doctor. This could spread the virus to more people. Instead, they should call their healthcare provider who can provide up-to-date guidance.
The World Health Organization (WHO) suggest that if a person shows symptoms that suggest COVID-19, they contact their healthcare provider and self-isolate.
If a person has concerns, they can contact their healthcare provider, who may offer advice over the phone or online.
According to the NIDDK, adults or children should see a doctor as soon as possible if they experience any of the following symptoms:
- diarrhea lasting more than 2 days
- a fever of 102ºF or higher
- frequent vomiting
- severe pain in the abdomen or rectum
- stools that are black and tarry or contain blood or pus
- symptoms of dehydration
Older adults and adults with weakened immune systems or other health conditions who have diarrhea should also contact their healthcare provider as soon as possible.
The CDC recommend that people wear cloth face masks in public places where it is difficult to maintain physical distancing. This will help slow the spread of the virus from people who do not know that they have contracted it, including those who are asymptomatic. People should wear cloth face masks while continuing to practice physical distancing. Instructions for making masks at home are available here. Note: It is critical that surgical masks and N95 respirators are reserved for healthcare workers.
Diarrhea can be a symptom of COVID-19, but it is not usually a cause for concern if it occurs on its own.
A person experiencing mild symptoms can stay at home and treat their diarrhea with over-the-counter medications and plenty of fluids.
However, if they come into contact with someone who has COVID-19, or they suspect they may have had exposure to the virus, and then experience a sudden onset of diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, or loss of appetite, they should speak to a healthcare professional over the phone or online.