Earlier this year, a large study of about 16,000 people found that the COVID-19 vaccine did, in fact, alter menstruation among 42% of participants. After vaccination, cycle length changed temporarily and heavier periods were reported, too.
Now, some experts (and many people who menstruate) are wondering how a COVID infection may have the same impact. Anecdotally, people have reported changes. Is this really the case? Here’s what experts currently know about the phenomenon:
In a recent study, participants reported period changes after being sick with COVID.
Recently, Dr. Leslie Farland, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona’s Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, and a team of her colleagues studied menstruation changes after COVID infections. The research was conducted in 127 people ranging from ages 18 to 45 beginning in May 2020. All participants tested positive for COVID at some point between the beginning of the pandemic and now; the study is still ongoing.
“Approximately 16% of menstruating participants who had COVID-19 reported changes to their menstrual cycle following infection,” Farland told HuffPost.
Participants most commonly reported irregular menstruation, an increase in premenstrual syndrome symptoms like mood swings and tiredness, and infrequent menstruation.
Outside of the study, other period changes have been reported, too.
“Anecdotally, I’ve heard reports of periods changing in regularity, flow, duration, pain level and intensity,” said Dr. Staci Tanouye, a gynecologist at Women’s Care Florida.
The topic of period changes is also rampant on Reddit threads, where users of the platform corroborated on issues like late periods and spotting after being infected with COVID.
Tanouye noted that “the normal menstrual cycle is immune-mediated, so we know that any type of major infection or challenge to the body’s immune system could alter menstrual cycles and symptoms.”
Delayed cycles, heavier periods or more painful periods can also occur when people have infections like HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C, she added.
People with more severe COVID infections were more likely to report menstruation changes.
In the University of Arizona study, “individuals who reported changes to their menstrual cycle following COVID-19 were more likely to experience a greater number of COVID-19 symptoms,” Farland said.
But, there is room for error: Study participants self-reported the severity of their COVID symptoms and their menstruation changes.
Stress could also be a factor.
It’s no secret that stress can impact your period, even causing it to disappear for months on end. And the pandemic has been extraordinarily stressful, Tanouye explained.
“With COVID infection, there are multiple stressors to the body including the physical and emotional stress of both pandemic changes as well as COVID infection,” she said.
Farland added that study participants who reported period changes also did report higher stress levels. But, she emphasized that her study did not focus on stress’ relationship to menstruation changes during a COVID infection.
Overall, the reason behind period changes after a COVID infection is still unclear.
“We are not entirely sure [of] the mechanism behind these changes to the menstrual cycle,” Farland said.
She noted that while higher stress levels were witnessed in some study participants, factors like long COVID should not be ruled out until they’re studied.
“A consequence of this work is the importance of including gynecologic and menstrual health into the discussion of long COVID symptoms,” she said.
It’s well-known that long COVID manifests in a range of systemic changes that last for weeks to months, Farland added. And these changes vary greatly from person to person.
More research is needed on the impact that a COVID infection has on periods.
“There is a paucity of scientific research on these topics,” Farland and her team write in the study. This can be attributed to many factors that for years have driven the lack of research on gynecologic health.
“Historically, these topics may have appeared less important and therefore received less research funding,” Farland told HuffPost.
Farland believes this is slowly changing as correlations are drawn between gynecologic health, quality of life and long-term chronic disease outcomes.
As more and more people notice period changes after having COVID, they’re turning to online forums or tips from friends for help. The impact a COVID infection has on periods may not be fully known, but, anecdotally, there seems to be one.
More research and funding would help address the topic and put many people’s worries at bay. Because don’t we have enough to worry about already?
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.