IBS is quite common. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases estimates that about 12% of people in the United States have IBS.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been stressful for everyone, but especially so for people with chronic conditions. If you have IBS, you may be wondering how COVID-19 can affect your condition.

Below, we’ll cover what we know about IBS and COVID-19 risk, whether or not COVID-19 can make IBS symptoms worse, and more.

New data on COVID-19 is constantly becoming available and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does ongoing reviews of this data to determine whether or not various health conditions increase COVID-19 risk.

Currently, IBS is not listed as a health condition that increases your risk of contracting COVID-19 or becoming seriously ill due to COVID-19.

However, IBS may happen along with another condition that can increase COVID-19 risk. This is called a comorbidity. Depression is an example of a condition that’s both associated with IBS and increased COVID-19 risk.

Even though having IBS doesn’t increase your risk of getting COVID-19 or becoming very sick from it, COVID-19 can still have an effect on IBS. People with IBS have reported worse physical and psychological symptoms during the pandemic. These effects aren’t due to the effects of a COVID-19 infection, but rather the stress related to the pandemic itself.

Stress is known to make IBS symptoms worse. From worries about getting COVID-19 to concerns about maintaining a job or managing finances, the pandemic has definitely come with its share of stress.

Much of this data comes from surveying people with IBS about their symptoms. For example, a 2020 study surveyed people with functional GI disorders like IBS and functional dyspepsia during the early part of the pandemic.

Compared to the control group, those with functional GI disorders had significantly worse digestive and psychological symptoms. The effect was strongest in those that had symptom overlap between IBS and functional dyspepsia.

A 2022 study looked at surveys from people with IBS referred to healthcare centers. Compared to before the pandemic, during the pandemic people with IBS reported more:

  • severe IBS symptoms
  • symptoms outside of the GI tract, such as urinary problems and muscle pain
  • sleep difficulties
  • feelings of helplessness

Other studies have supported the findings above. A 2021 study found that compared to people without IBS, those with IBS reported that their emotional, psychological, and social well-being was significantly worse during the pandemic.

These effects can be greater for some than others. A 2022 study saw that those with comorbid anxiety or depression had worse IBS symptoms and psychological health during the pandemic compared to people with IBS that didn’t have these comorbid conditions.

In order to enter a host cell, a virus needs to bind to a receptor protein on the outside of the cell. The receptor for SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, is called ACE2.

ACE2 is actually found in many areas of the body, including in the GI tract. Due to this, SARS-CoV-2 can potentially infect these cells, leading to GI symptoms.

A 2022 study found the genetic material of SARS-CoV-2 (RNA) in fecal samples of people that had had COVID-19. The presence of this RNA correlated with reported GI systems, indicating that the virus is infecting cells in the GI tract.

The researchers also saw that, in a small percentage of people, viral RNA could be detected in fecal samples up to 7 months later. They proposed that long-term infection of the GI tract may cause the GI symptoms in long COVID.

However, there are also other mechanisms that may contribute to GI symptoms during or after COVID-19. These may include:

  • inflammation due to your immune system’s response to the infection
  • disruption of the microorganisms that naturally live in your gut
  • abnormal immune responses that persist after COVID-19

COVID-19 and IBS-like symptoms

Viral and bacterial infections can also sometimes lead to post-infectious IBS. In addition to the effects that the pandemic has had on people with IBS, there have also been reports of new IBS-like symptoms following COVID-19.

GI symptoms like abdominal pain and diarrhea are sometimes reported in long COVID. Long COVID is a collection of ongoing symptoms that may last weeks, months, or even years after a person has COVID-19.

A 2022 study followed up on 48 people 6 months after they first had COVID-19. Most of these individuals had no previous history of GI symptoms prior to their COVID-19 diagnosis.

Researchers found that 21 of these individuals (43.8%) reported new GI symptoms during the follow-up. These included:

These new symptoms were also frequent or persistent. Most of the study participants reported having GI symptoms every day (39.1%) or a few times per week (30.4%).

Meanwhile, a 2021 study found that 21 out of 200 participants (10.5%) reported having IBS-like symptoms after COVID-19. Factors associated with this included identifying as a woman and having a previous history of anxiety or depression.

If you develop IBS-like symptoms during or after COVID-19, what can you do? Generally speaking, IBS can be managed using a combination of lifestyle changes and medications.

Lifestyle changes mostly revolve around making adjustments to your diet that aim to reduce your IBS symptoms. These can include things like:

There are also other lifestyle changes that may help with your symptoms as well. These include:

If lifestyle changes alone aren’t effective, your doctor may suggest medications. The exact medications depend on your specific symptoms but typically include those that aim to ease things like abdominal pain, diarrhea, and constipation.

Many people with IBS also have psychological symptoms. As such, receiving psychological therapy may be also beneficial for some.

The gut-brain connection

While its exact cause is unknown, IBS is a condition that’s associated with how your digestive tract and brain interact with each other. This is called the gut-brain connection.

This connection goes both ways. That means that while your brain controls the activity in your digestive system, your gut health can also influence things like mood and mental health.

Many people with IBS also have comorbid mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. As such, it’s important to be sure to take care of your mental health if you have IBS. Some of the resources below may be helpful to you:

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IBS isn’t associated with an increased risk of contracting or becoming severely ill due to COVID-19. However, pandemic-related stressors have been associated with worsening physical and psychological symptoms in people with IBS.

Additionally, some people that have had COVID-19 experience IBS-like symptoms in the weeks or months after becoming ill. This could be due to the direct infection of cells in the GI tract as well as other mechanisms.

If you have IBS during or after COVID-19, implementing various lifestyle changes may help to reduce your symptoms. If not, make an appointment with your doctor to discuss additional treatment options, such as medications.