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Everyone has stomach issues from time to time, and occasional digestive discomfort is not usually something to worry about. That said, doctors note that there are a few gastrointestinal symptoms you shouldn’t write off, because they could signal something serious.
“I’ve seen many cases where patients have waited way too long before seeking medical attention,” says Christine Lee, M.D., a gastroenterologist at the Cleveland Clinic.
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Here are 10 symptoms you should never ignore and what they may mean.
1. Prolonged diarrhea
Diarrhea can be a symptom of a number of things — from a food allergy to a bacterial infection. It can also be a warning sign of COVID-19, appearing before more well-known symptoms such as cough or fever, says Brennan Spiegel, M.D., director of health services research for Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Studies show that as many as half of COVID-19 patients have gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms, and about 15 to 20 percent have only GI symptoms. Diarrhea is the most frequently reported GI symptom, followed by nausea/vomiting and abdominal pain.
If you have diarrhea, nausea/vomiting or abdominal pain that lasts more than a day, “don’t wait for a cough or shortness of breath to get tested for COVID,” Spiegel says. If your test is positive, you could be eligible for highly effective antiviral treatments that can help keep mild symptoms from progressing to more serious ones. New research shows these treatments may also lower a person’s risk for developing long COVID.
If it’s not COVID-19, prolonged diarrhea could signal another type of infection or an underlying condition like ulcerative colitis or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
2. Blood in your stool
Whether bright red, maroon or black, seeing blood in the toilet can be frightening. Fortunately, it’s usually not a symptom of anything life-threatening, says Nicholas E. Anthony, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Atrium Health in Charlotte, North Carolina. The most common causes are hemorrhoids and anal fissures (tears in the lining of the anus). But blood in your stool can also be one of the first symptoms of colon cancer, especially if accompanied by a change in your bowel habits or the shape of your stool. Since colon cancer is more common among those over age 50, it’s especially important for older adults to see a doctor without delay. Other possible causes of bleeding are colon polyps, inflammatory bowel disease, colitis and diverticulosis.