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Study: People with chronic acid reflux may be able to get COVID-19 from eating

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Barrett's esophagus

Shown is tissue taken from patients with Barrett's esophagus. The cells resemble intestinal cells rather than normal esophagus cells. The red color notes the presence of a protein called actin that is found in intestinal cells, while the green marks the presence of the TMPRSS2 protein that binds to the coronavirus. Image provided by Washington University School of Medicine.

ST. LOUIS — People with chronic acid reflux may be more vulnerable to getting COVID-19 by swallowing the virus, suggests a study by Washington University School of Medicine.

The study was published online Wednesday in the medical journal Gastroenterology.

Researchers studied tissue from 30 patients with a common disorder called Barrett’s esophagus — when repeated exposure to stomach acid changes the normal tissue lining of the esophagus to resemble the lining of the intestine.

Because intestinal cells have receptors that can bind to the coronavirus, senior investigator Dr. Jason Mills and his team wondered if Barrett’s patients also would develop receptors in the esophagus, the tube that carries food to the stomach, according to a university news release about the study.

They found that while cells in a healthy esophagus cannot bind to the coronavirus, cells from patients with the disorder can.

It has been considered unlikely to get COVID-19 from eating and drinking because most foods are unlikely to carry viral particles. Even if some particles are attached to the food, stomach acid neutralizes the coronavirus.

Patients with Barrett’s take drugs such as proton pump inhibitors to suppress stomach acid secretions, but that also be may weakening patients’ defenses against the coronavirus, the researchers say.

An estimated one in five people have chronic acid reflux, and 10% to 20% of those with chronic reflux develop Barrett’s esophagus.

“The worry would be that, particularly for Barrett’s patients, there even may be a susceptibility to infection from foods containing viral particles,” Mills stated. “This study provides data to indicate that we need to take a closer look to investigate whether a substantial portion of the population may be susceptible to infection through what they swallow.”

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