Wilmarie Rios Jaime’s periods were always super easy — “the kind where your friends are like, ‘OK, b*tch, stop talking,’” she tells Bustle. But since the start of the pandemic, the 26-year-old Texan’s menstrual cycle has left her “low-key panicked.”
In March, the newly enrolled grad student started experiencing vaginal and pelvic pain. A round of Monistat, taken on the advice of her university health center, did nothing to change her symptoms. In April, she didn’t get her period at all despite being consistent with her birth control, and then, after a negative pregnancy test, she had a normal cycle in May. But for the first time in eight years on the pill, her June period came during the third week of her pack. The bleeding and cramping was so intense, she says, she thought she was having a miscarriage.
Rios Jaime is one of many period-havers experiencing menstrual weirdness since the pandemic started. Some, like Rios Jaime, chalk the changes up to stress. (A telehealth follow-up suggested she try Monistat again, but otherwise shrugged her off. “I was like, ‘How do you know I'm fine? You can’t even look at my vagina!’” she says.) Others say they’re having more intense periods and even recurrent COVID-19 symptoms after surviving the virus. All of them are nervous about what the long-term impact of the pandemic will have on their cycle.
Much is still unknown about any correlation between COVID-19 — and the impact of living through a pandemic — and the endocrine or reproductive systems. One study published at the top of July found that the virus can worsen existing hormone conditions. But as a May review noted, more research needs to be done on what COVID could mean for endocrine health. Menstruation seems not to have factored into the COVID conversation — yet.
“Living in a pandemic — where there is a constant worry of potential exposure and illness, the financial strain of not working, the need for child care without in-person schools, and social isolation — can cause the type of stress that impacts menstruation,” Dr. Karen Chiu Wang, M.D., an assistant professor of gynecology and obstetrics at Johns Hopkins Medicine and an expert in abnormal uterine bleeding, tells Bustle. “When we are stressed, we produce more cortisol, which signals our brains and alters the production of reproductive hormones, causing rising estrogen levels that can impact emotional responses, cognition, and memory. With those changes, it can cause irregular bleeding, lighter flow, amenorrhea, or heavier bleeding.”
Kristen Marion, 33, is certainly feeling the pressure. The Arizona mom stopped taking the pill about four months ago to try for a second child — but hasn’t yet gotten her period or a positive pregnancy test. (Most people will resume their cycle within a few weeks of going off hormonal birth control, though for some this could take up to three months.) While she worked from home pre-pandemic and has continued to do so, having her 5-year-old home all the time adds a layer of stress she didn’t expect. “I haven’t had any other symptoms other than no period,” she says. “It’s weird not knowing why this is happening when this isn’t a normal thing for my body.”
When their period came around, they were hit with viral symptoms all over again.
Stress is just one part of the picture. Wang says people whose periods have changed in the last few months should monitor their symptoms, record their menstrual cycles, and especially be aware if there are prolonged periods of amenorrhea, or the absence of bleeding during a cycle. She cautions that period issues might not be attributable to pandemic stress — someone with an irregular cycle could have thyroid or pituitary gland dysfunction, for example — and so should be brought to your doctor’s attention ASAP.
The health issue that's top of mind right now, of course, isn't thyroid problems — it's the coronavirus. And some COVID-19 survivors say their periods simply haven't been the same since their diagnoses.
Fiona Lowenstein was hospitalized for COVID in mid-March, but it wasn’t until April that the 26-year-old New Yorker noticed their symptoms were worse the last week of their cycle, on top of the COVID symptoms they were still coping with. “My headaches were way more intense. When I had my period, I was in bed all day and just felt really tired,” they say.
Lowenstein thought they were fully recovered from COVID by May. But when their period came around, they were hit with viral symptoms all over again. “I had really bad fatigue, headaches, eye pain, [and] very intense temperature sensitivities and fluctuations. I would be sweating and then have the chills. I would take my temperature, and I would have no fever.” The same thing happened again during their cycle in June.
Wang says that, so far, the virus has been best shown to affect the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems, not your reproductive tract, and the impact on the latter remains understudied. But nearly four months into the coronavirus pandemic, doctors are still learning new things about the illness daily. New research about COVID-19 suggests it’s actually a vascular disease, not a respiratory one (though it's caused by a respiratory virus). The CDC continues to add new symptoms to its tracker, and reports of everything from gastrointestinal to dermatological effects contribute to growing evidence that COVID-19 impacts the whole body.
Dr. Amanda Kallen, M.D., an assistant professor at Yale Medicine, explains that while a lot remains unknown about COVID specifically, acute illnesses can lead to changes in the way hormones communicate with the brain, the pituitary gland, and the ovaries or testes. The virus that causes mumps, for example, has been linked to ovarian failure. The lack of established science about COVID, however, is frustrating for those who want answers about what’s going on with their reproductive systems now.
They keep telling me I’m just stressed. I’m like, "No sh*t — I’m sick."
Angela Meriquez Vazquez, 33, contracted COVID-19 at the end of March. She’s on her fourth straight month of tingling, numbness, dizziness, shortness of breath, low blood pressure, flushing, swelling, and even seizures. Like Lowenstein, she says her period symptoms and her COVID symptoms exacerbate one another.
During her first period after contracting COVID, she got a yeast infection, which she says never happens unless she’s on antibiotics. During her second COVID period, she had extreme clotting. Because of her concerns about how both COVID and the pill are linked to blood clots, she stopped taking her birth control pills after that second period. She then went through a relapse of her neurological COVID symptoms, including seizures the week before her third COVID period. (She had no prior experience of seizures before COVID.) She went back on the pill after those symptoms, reasoning that the risk of clotting was less than the risk of having more seizures. Her period now is still extremely light, and she says she goes through a relapse of her COVID-associated asthma during the placebo week.
“Whenever I’ve mentioned to my doctors that I’m concerned that COVID may be impacting my hormones ... those concerns have been hand-waved around,” she says. “They keep telling me I’m just stressed. I’m like, ‘No sh*t — I’m sick.’”
Before getting sick, Meriquez Vazquez went back on birth control to take a break after trying unsuccessfully to get pregnant for a year. “Since I was already struggling to get pregnant before I got COVID, I’m concerned about what this may mean for me long-term,” she says.
Kallen says that there just aren’t answers yet. “We still know very little about the impact of COVID-19 on reproduction and pregnancy,” she says.
But in the absence of any hard information about what COVID-19 might be doing to their reproductive system, Lowenstein says they’ve just had to make their peace with this seemingly permanent change: “It’s something I have come to be aware of in my recovery — ‘I am getting my period and need to clear my schedule.’”