Periods are a lot to handle, with abdominal cramps, diarrhoea, fatigue, headaches, mood swings, and many more uncomfortable symptoms. It’s a whole package of discomfort and pain. The COVID-19 virus came with many struggles and varying impacts on people and their lifestyles over the past two years. While all of this was enough difficulties for anyone, it appears to be a worse case for women (physically and mentally), mainly because of periods.
Many people have reported disturbances to their menstrual cycles, some noticing changes after catching the virus, others following vaccination. At the start of the lockdown and months after, PCR home tests and COVID vaccines weren’t made widely available. As time passed, cheap PCR tests in London were more accessible.
But before determining what possibly causes these changes, it’s important to note that people’s cycles usually differ. These changes could also have a part to play in the variability of one’s period.
Irregular periods, unusual clotting of one’s period blood or worsened premenstrual syndrome (PMS), strange amounts of clots in the menstrual discharge, and unusually large clots in the blood are some of the changes that have been observed. There could also be an increase in the severity of the COVID-19 illness around the time one’s period is due, change in the frequency, density, flow, and pain level. These are examples of the effect of the COVID-19 virus on the menstrual cycle.
While there is no definite conclusion on this subject, it has also been suggested that stress could be a core cause of the changes in one’s period. Studies show that mental health in the UK deteriorated during the first lockdown, with stress and depression rising. Also, in an online survey, 46% of people said they had seen changes in their menstrual cycle during the pandemic, such as the severity of premenstrual symptoms or cycle length. Stress is plausible if the cause is unconfirmed. Heavy exercise or extreme dieting can result in missing periods, though this is reversible once food intake increases or exercise is reduced. We, therefore, need to take care when assessing self-reported changes in menstrual cycles.
However, it’s also been suggested that in cases of severe illness, such as COVID, the body transiently reduces ovulation (which can impact menstrual bleeding) to redirect energy away from reproduction and towards fighting infection. Another cause could be the massive inflammatory effects that COVID has on the body, which in turn impacts menstrual cycle disturbances.
Shortly after COVID vaccines became available, reports began to appear of them impacting menstrual cycles – mainly that they affected cycle length, making them shorter and more prolonged. It’s difficult, though, to untangle the effects of the vaccine from the impact of living through the stressful pandemic.
Unfortunately, questions concerning menstruation have been excluded from most COVID vaccine research, including their trials, so there isn’t much research on how many people have experienced menstrual changes.
However, vaccines could affect cycles for several reasons, including the body’s immune response to the vaccine, which can influence the hormones controlling the menstrual cycle. Indeed, reports of menstrual changes after vaccination are not new. With the COVID vaccines, when there are changes, they almost always appear to be short-lived, and the vaccines haven’t been shown to impact fertility. Doctors and other healthcare workers should perhaps add this detail to what menstruating people are told to expect from vaccination so they can plan around it.
Reporting menstrual changes as a side-effect could encourage pharmaceutical companies and researchers to place menstrual and reproductive health more centrally in medical research, meaning there would be better future data for vaccines and medicines. Anyone in the UK experiencing changes to their cycles is encouraged to report these to the Yellow Card scheme, which logs potential vaccine side effects.
It is now quite clear that COVID vaccines and infection with the coronavirus can affect the menstrual cycle, and while not definitively proven, it’s plausible that pandemic stress does too. Changes seem to return to normal after a few months, but if you experience new issues with your menstrual cycle or changes to your cycles are long-lasting, please discuss this with your doctor.