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Unexpected Surge in Diarrhea-Related Online Searches Reflects Changing Health Concerns

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The world of public health is witnessing an unanticipated trend: a surge in online searches related to diarrhea. While initially attributed to the high-profile Delta Air Lines incident in 2023, a closer look reveals multiple factors driving this heightened interest.

From September 2018 to September 2023, search volumes related to diarrhea increased by around 40.56%, highlighting a marked shift in the public’s health concerns.

Cropped image of woman's hand take toilet paper in the bathroom
Photo Credit: makidotvn via Deposit Photo.

The growing focus on diarrhea can be attributed to several factors, including increased international travel, ongoing COVID-19 concerns, and the side effects of new medications like Ozempic. As indicated by Google Trends, the substantial rise in search volumes points towards these causes.

Generally, search volumes see a spike during the colder months of December through February and a dip during the warmer months from June to August. This pattern suggests a potential correlation between occurrences of diarrhea and seasonal changes. Additionally, noticeable increases have been observed around the holiday season, possibly due to elevated travel or heightened health concerns amidst the flu season.

A distressing incident aboard a Delta Air Lines flight in September was a major factor in the surge in diarrhea-related searches. A Delta flight heading for Barcelona had to return to Atlanta mid-flight due to an unforeseen incident—a passenger suffering a severe bout of diarrhea according to CNN. The flight had to divert over central Virginia as the passenger’s condition created a biohazard within the aircraft, forcing the crew to return with 336 passengers.

This incident unwittingly escalated attention to diarrhea-related issues, sparking a burst in online searches. The combined impact of the incident’s media coverage, public chatter, and escalating awareness about related health concerns elucidates the exceptional increase in searches during September.

In light of such incidents and the potential health risks they underscore, Gastroenterologist Dr. Steven Naymagon shares, “Diarrhea is among the most common symptoms among individuals traveling from resource-rich to resource-limited countries, with acute bacterial and viral infections accounting for most of these cases.”

airplane interior
Photo credit: StockSnap from pixabay.

Naymagon stresses that travelers should take proper precautions including hand washing and avoiding potentially contaminated food and water during their travels. On a positive note, he adds, “Fortunately, most diarrheal illnesses resolve spontaneously without specific treatment.”

Nevertheless, Naymagon stands firm on his word of caution, “if diarrhea persists or additional worrisome symptoms arise, one should seek medical attention as soon as possible.”

Resumption of Global Travel Sows Gastrointestinal Concerns

The revival in global travel might be another factor contributing to this trend. As travel restrictions are lifted, and countries reopen borders, travelers’ worries about illnesses linked with their journeys are mounting, with traveler’s diarrhea topping the list. Searches for this condition surged 23% over the past year, indicating a palpable increase in public awareness and interest.

Although the searches initially plunged in 2020 due to pandemic stay-at-home travel restrictions, they recovered by late 2022, surpassing pre-pandemic levels into 2023. This revival demonstrates travelers’ resilience and reflects their heightened commitment to health-conscious practices and anticipatory healthcare measures as borders reopen.

Acknowledging the rising trend and search patterns surrounding travelers’ diarrhea, we sought the expert perspective of Suzanne Finkel, a Registered Dietitian (RD) and Certified Dietitian Nutritionist (CDN) of New York Gastroenterology Associates, contributor to FODMAP Everyday®, and head health writer for VeryWell Health. Finkel explains, “Travelers’ diarrhea is generally caused by consuming water or food contaminated with bacteria, parasites, or viruses. I recommend my patients do a little research on the water and food hygiene conditions of their destination to learn if it’s high risk for tourists before going.” 

To minimize the risk, she encourages travelers to avoid tap water sources and choose bottled water even for brushing teeth. Additionally, Finkel emphasizes the significance of cautious meal choices, advising, “choosing well-cooked dishes, especially animal proteins, and avoiding raw fruits and vegetables (unless peeled).”

COVID-19’s Impact on Diarrhea-Related Searches

The enduring COVID-19 pandemic contributed to the spike in online searches concerning diarrhea. The advent of new variants of concern and evolving symptoms caught public interest, leading to heightened vigilance. The term “COVID diarrhea” saw a substantial increase in search volume over the past thirty days, witnessing an average growth of 84%.

The evolving nature of COVID-19 symptoms presents challenges in distinguishing the virus from allergies or common colds. Additionally, gastrointestinal symptoms like diarrhea have been reported as a symptom of COVID-19, with research published in the World Journal of Clinical Cases highlighting its impact. The public’s interest in staying updated was a possible catalyst behind the rise in searches relating diarrhea as a virus symptom.

A series of articles on COVID-19 and its effects on the gut, with a focus on Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).

“It’s not rare for patients to tell me that they noticed their gastrointestinal symptoms started, or worsened, right after contracting Covid,” says Finkel. “As far as I know, there aren’t definitive answers, but for some people, it’s likely a post-infectious (aka post-viral) form of irritable bowel syndrome.”

Offering reassurance to those affected, Finkel emphasizes, “For anyone with this symptom, we have a variety of treatment options so no one should have to suffer from this.”

Ozempic and Its Role in Diarrhea Searches

Diarrhea is also associated with Ozempic, a recently launched medication for treating type 2 diabetes. Recognized as one of its potential side effects, the phrase “Ozempic diarrhea” saw a remarkable surge in online searches of 284% over the past year as more patients were prescribed the drug.

Notably, an additional factor bringing attention to diarrhea and Ozempic is the emergence of supplements marketed as “nature’s Ozempic.” These supplements purport to offer similar benefits to the medication but often need more scientific validation and regulatory approval. This newfound trend has raised concerns among healthcare professionals, who caution against the potential risks associated with such unverified products.

Discussing Ozempic’s potential side effects, Finkel shared that while diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting are potential side effects of Ozempic, she did not know diarrhea to be a major one that her patients complain of. “Regarding effects on bowel habits, constipation is more common since Ozempic slows down motility by way of delayed stomach emptying,” says Finkle.” It also works to diminish appetite so many people are eating less overall, which can contribute to constipation as well.”

Looking Ahead

The rising interest in diarrhea reveals larger trends in health and media, emphasizing the importance of staying up-to-date with health concerns, seeking apt advice when necessary, and the vital role communication plays in overall well-being.

“I think historically there has been a lot more attention given to constipation, but the reality is many people suffer from diarrhea and it can be quite stigmatizing to talk about,” says Finkel. She is hopeful that conversations about gastrointestinal health are normalized in the future. 

For those with unusual symptoms, she encourages them to speak with their healthcare provider and get evaluated.

“Some conditions require immediate medical treatment, whereas others will benefit from longer-term management strategies. Luckily, GI-specialized providers including gastroenterologists, GI dietitians, and GI psychologists, are expertly positioned to help alleviate symptoms and support your quality of life.”

This article was produced by FODMAP Everyday®

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