Raven La Fae, a 31-year-old artist in Calgary, Canada, has always been able to predict her menstrual period almost to the day—arriving every 28 days and lasting for five. But after contracting COVID-19, that’s no longer the case.
La Fae’s bout with the disease felled her for two miserable weeks. Her menstrual cycle landed during that time, so she wasn’t surprised. What stunned her was how long it lasted—10 days.
“My period has been funky ever since,” La Fae laments, and when she contracted COVID again, it became even less predictable. While the days between her cycles have mostly returned to baseline, bleeding lengths have not, lasting up to 13 days a month.
From the beginning of the pandemic, women worldwide began noticing changes to their menstrual cycles. In some cases, this happened after contracting the virus; in others, after receiving a vaccine. With so many women recording their cycles in period-tracking apps, researchers have been able to more easily document the phenomenon.
Physicians were taken off guard. La Fae’s healthcare provider, after determining her hormones were normal, said she couldn’t explain it. Women complained their doctors dismissed their hunch the virus might be linked to disrupted cycles.
“When COVID started we were worried about people dying, so other things were overlooked,” admits Hugh Taylor, chair of obstetrics and gynecology at Yale Medicine. In retrospect, Taylor says, women should have been alerted to this possibility. “We see irregular menstrual cycles with other acute infections, so it isn’t surprising it happens here.”
Without research or reassurance from physicians, women were alarmed by the deviations in their periods, Taylor says, and for good reason: “We’ve been warning people for years that changes in a period might be a symptom of a hormonal imbalance, or even cancer.”
When girls and women noticed unexpected shifts in their cycle after receiving a COVID shot, some second-guessed their decision to get a vaccine, says Candace Tingen, a program director at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which has awarded $1.67 million to five research institutions to study the issue.
Tingen points out that her institute has long emphasized the importance of menstrual cycles to health. “We talk about it as a fifth vital sign,” she says (the other four being body temperature, blood pressure, pulse, and respiration).
Most concerning to younger women was whether these changes could reduce fertility, Taylor says. It wasn’t until January that a study of 2,000 American couples published in the American Journal of Epidemiology resolved the question. Women trying to conceive who’d had the virus saw no decrease in fertility. Similarly, the COVID shot had no impact on conception rates.
Both virus and vaccine may temporarily alter menstruation
Scientists are still figuring out how many women have seen their menstrual cycles change, but it’s clear the numbers are substantial. In a study of 127 women of childbearing-age in Arizona who had contracted COVID, 16 percent reported some alteration; most common were irregular cycles or longer gaps between bleeds. These shifts were more likely in those whose infection involved more symptoms or was more severe (but not to the point of hospitalization).
In this study, women also had increases in the premenstrual syndrome symptoms of mood changes and fatigue. “We think of the menstrual period as an acute event that occurs for a few days, but hormones are changing throughout the entire cycle,” explains Leslie Farland, an epidemiology professor at the University of Arizona and the study’s principal investigator.
Researchers in other countries report even greater percentages of women suffered changes to their periods after contracting COVID. A United Kingdom survey found nearly half the women reported alterations, primarily in cycle length and increased PMS, as did 47 percent of women from Jordan and Iraq, according to another study from the Middle East.
A study on the vaccine’s effect funded by the National Institutes of Health published in January tracked 4,000 women from the U.S. who used one period tracking app. It found cycles shifted after the first shot, but only by an average of less than a day. Those whose second shot fell in the same cycle shifted by about two days, though in either case the length of bleeding wasn’t altered, says Alison Edelman, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Oregon Health and Science University and the study’s principal investigator. A second study by Edelman, of nearly 20,000 women in North America and Europe using the same app reported similar findings in September.
These slight changes occurred with all brands of the vaccines, and in most cases, they disappeared the following cycle. Still, 10 percent of the women saw their period shift by more than a week after either dose. However, these women were also back to normal soon after.
How does coronavirus change a period?
Exactly how the coronavirus or vaccine affects the menstrual cycle isn’t clear.
One hypothesis posits that COVID-19 may affect what’s known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-ovarian axis. To begin each monthly cycle, the hypothalamus gland signals the pituitary gland to secrete two hormones that together release an egg from the ovaries.
It’s possible the coronavirus affects the hypothalamus directly, Taylor says, but the body may also proactively decrease the activity of these glands if the virus is detected. “This has evolutionary advantages, because you don’t want to get pregnant when you’re fighting off a physical stressor, which could be an illness or malnutrition or the like,” he explains.
Alternatively, the immune system engaged in fighting the virus could alter the normal inflammatory response of the uterine lining (endometrium) during the cycle, researchers recently suggested in the International Journal of Epidemiology. This may be why people who experienced a more intense bout of COVID—indicating a higher viral load and more immune activity—have higher rates of menstrual changes, as the University of Arizona study found.
That was the case for Annette Gillaspie, a 41-year-old registered nurse in Hillsboro, Oregon, who contracted COVID and was extremely ill for more than two weeks. She now has long COVID symptoms, including a fluctuating heart rate and fatigue so extreme a shower can send her to bed for days. Her periods are so unusually long and heavy—gushing for almost two weeks some months—that Gillaspie had a hormonal intrauterine device inserted. So far, it hasn’t reduced her bleeding, and if she doesn’t improve within a few months, she’ll likely have a hysterectomy.
Vaccines trigger more minor shifts
Vaccines trigger the body’s immune system response, albeit a smaller one than the disease, so the same mechanisms could be involved in their temporary menstrual cycle disruptions, Tingen says.
Disseminating this reassuring information to women so they know to expect this possible side effect is an important public health task, Tingen says.
Anyone whose cycle remains significantly altered for several months, however, should check with their healthcare provider, Taylor says. “My suspicion is that people on the cusp of a medical condition—thyroid abnormalities, hormonal irregularities, bleeding from fibroids—might be pushed over the edge” by the coronavirus or COVID vaccine.
Edelman hopes this will be a teaching moment for her profession. “Menstrual health has been woefully understudied, not just in vaccine trials but in almost every area of research,” she says. “Yet half the population will, does, or has menstruated, and this routine biological function has meaning for the individual and for science.”