Searches for gastrointestinal symptoms including loss of taste and diarrhea appear to be linked to coronavirus outbreaks, according to research at a Massachusetts hospital. The Massachusetts General researchers say data from 15 states between Jan. 20 and April 20 revealed that surges in cases followed rises in searches for the symptoms in California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York, Bloomberg reports. The researchers, whose study is published in the journal Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, say the local outbreaks came three to four weeks after the searches. The same approach helped track pandemic influenza trends a decade ago, the researchers say.
“Our data underscore the importance of GI symptoms as a potential harbinger of COVID-19 infections,” wrote study co-author Dr. Kyle Staller, a gastroenterologist. He tells Yahoo that the study was inspired by the team’s similar research on irritable bowel syndrome. “The data really showed that Google Trends appeared to be able to predict, in some ways, spikes in high incidence areas,” he says. Staller says that while the technology isn’t a foolproof way of predicting outbreaks, “this could be an extra help for public health officials.” He says people who develop sudden gastroenterological symptoms should exercise caution. “It could be a manifestation of COVID-19, which we’ve learned is really a multisystem disease,” he says. (Read more coronavirus stories.)