General Updates Regarding COVID-19 and IBD

What are the symptoms of COVID-19 and are they different for inflammatory bowel disease patients?

Patients who are infected with the novel coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2 may develop a disease called COVID-19. The symptoms of COVID-19 are most frequently fever, cough and other respiratory symptoms, which might progress to shortness of breath. Other common symptoms include fatigue or muscle aches. Some digestive symptoms have been associated with COVID-19 as well, including a loss of appetite, a loss of smell or taste, abdominal discomfort, more frequent bowel movements or loose stools.

We haven't seen enough IBD patients who've developed COVID-19 to know whether these patients have different types of symptoms but for patients with IBD, having digestive symptoms could be confused with a flare of IBD. The unique concern here is to distinguish between someone who is having a relapse of their IBD, compared to someone who might be having symptoms of an infection. We're working hard with our patients and researchers to figure this out.

Are inflammatory bowel disease patients considered immunosuppressed? Do they have a higher risk of contracting COVID-19?

Patients who have Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis have a chronic condition in which the immune system of the intestines is overactive. The goal of IBD treatment is not to immune suppress the patient, but rather to modify their overactive immune system so it’s under better control.  When we treat our patients effectively, we turn down the overactive immune system just enough so their body takes over, and we actually minimize their risk for infections. 

That said, being on immune therapies for inflammatory bowel disease may increase the risk for some viral infections, but based on the information we have so far, it’s hard to say if there is actually an increased risk of contracting COVID-19 in patients who are on standard IBD therapies. Our general message to patients right now is to stay on your existing therapies and stay in remission. If you have any concerns, please make an appointment with your doctor and have a conversation about whether there might be any adjustments to be made.

What should I do if I have Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis and develop COVID-19 symptoms?

Patients with inflammatory bowel disease who develop COVID-19 will have the same symptoms as the general population of patients who don't have IBD: fever, cough, respiratory symptoms (shortness of breath) or new onset diarrhea. Let your doctor know right away if you develop some of these symptoms or if you're worried that you might have developed COVID-19. Do not stop your medications without talking with your provider first!

Should I keep my IBD appointments at this time?

Yes, you should keep your appointments, but we are shifting most of our visits to virtual if possible. We can handle many of your concerns and questions as well as your routine healthy follow up visits this way. We have also deferred most elective colonoscopies or other endoscopic procedures at this time. If you need a procedure because of something that's time sensitive or essential in other ways for your management, we certainly are able to do that. The best thing to do is to call your doctor to find out what options are available for you.

What should I do if I think I’m having an IBD flare-up?

We have treatments available that are safe to start even while this pandemic is going on. Patients shouldn't ignore their IBD symptoms or any other digestive symptoms. Keep in touch with your physician to get it back under control quickly. The last thing we want is for patients to be living with these symptoms and afraid to notify their doctor or come to the clinic.

Where can I find the most up-to-date information on COVID-19?

To get the most up-to-date information, please visit one of the following trusted websites:

Ask for a Referral

You’ll need a physician’s referral to make an appointment at the UNC Children’s Center for Inflammatory Bowel Disease. For more information, talk to your doctor or call us at 919-966-2435.