Gayathri Krishnaraj was on her period when she tested positive for COVID-19 in March – at a time when India was on the cusp of the second wave of the pandemic. She had high fever, severe body ache and a heaviness in her chest for one week. But Gayathri continued to bleed for over 60 days, with a gap of barely a few days here and there.
"Sometimes, I couldn't even feel it, but I was bleeding out. I knew that this was different. Even on days I did not have regular flow, there was at least a drop or two," Gayathri told The Quint, elaborating on her 'exhaustive' experience.
The doctor ran some tests and found that her haemoglobin levels had drastically dropped.
“My doctor in Chennai said the stress I was under and the energy that my body spent while fighting COVID could possibly have led to the imbalance of hormones. But I am not surprised that we don’t know anything beyond this,” she added.
Women across the globe have shared anecdotes on how the coronavirus had disrupted their menstrual cycles. However, many, like Gayathri, were not surprised that there was barely any research to study this aspect of the disease.
Heavy Bleeding to No Cycle: How Women Suffer
A Pune-based pharmacist, 28-year-old Roopa Jain was first infected with coronavirus in June 2020, and again in November 2020. Since then, not only has she been experiencing irregular period cycle, but also increased clotting of blood.
“I used to get my periods on time. But now, I feel my body has lost control. Sometimes, I get my cycle in just 15 days, with really heavy flow. At others,I miss a couple of cycles. It has been a nightmare. And the worse thing is there is no answer. Is it stress? Could be. Has the virus wrecked my body? Could be. But why are researchers not studying it? Are we not important enough for anything other than reproducing.”Roopa Jain to The Quint
“The pain was unbearable. I would not be able keep food in my stomach or be able to sleep. I just want to be myself again and not stay in bed for days at a stretch,” she added.
For others, like Shriyanka Singh, a small business owner from Noida, it is the ‘often-dismissed’ Pre-Menstrual Syndrome (PMS) that has worsened. From family to friends, Singh said, no one took what she went through seriously.
“I was diagnosed with PCOS at 18. So, let’s say that I have not had a regular cycle for almost 10 years now. But I’ve never experienced anything like this. I have erratic mood swings, heightened anxiety and I am simply unable to move two days before my period. I am tired and exhausted and cannot stop crying. People just dismiss it saying that it happens to everyone. But it doesn’t.”
The Only Study on COVID-19 Virus & Menstruation
Until now, the only study on the impact of SARS-CoV-2 infection on menstruation, sex hormones, and ovarian reserves of women who contracted the disease was conducted in Wuhan, China, and published in September 2020.
On examining the menstrual data of 177 female patients, researchers found that “45 (25 percent) patients presented with menstrual volume changes, and 50 (28 percent) patients had menstrual cycle changes, mainly a decreased volume (20 percent) and a prolonged cycle (19 percent). The average sex hormone and AMH concentrations of women of childbearing age with COVID-19 were not different from those of age-matched controls.” The same study also said that 1/5th of the women infected with coronavirus experienced menstrual abnormalities.
‘Stop Putting Women’s Health Issues on the Sidelines’
In India, Dr Shehla Jamal – who is leading a survey on behalf of an independent body of gynecologists, Society Of Menstrual Disorders and Hygiene Management – said that while no explanation has been established, it is important to use our resources to study the same.
At least 21 percent of the respondents reported either heavy (22 percent) or painful (34 percent) menstrual episodes, following COVID-19.
“While there are no established causative aetiology explanation to this yet, in majority of the cases, stress, anxiety, malnutrition, and changes in lifestyle may be partially responsible for the change in cycle. But how do we know this if there are no studies conducted? We could go on complaining, or we can act as we are a country full of trained professionals who can conduct the study.”Dr Shehla Jamal
Dr Suchitra Dalvie of Asia Safe Abortion Partnership (ASAP) asserted that modern medicine and patriarchy simply sees women as a vehicle towards the next generation and just that.
“When you are seriously ill or are stressed, for example, if you have an exam or a job interview coming up, or you have moved towns, your body sees it as a stressful situation. Under these circumstances, it is not safe for you to get pregnant. Usually, your body shuts down for a cycle or two, or you experience irregularity during this period. Women who have chronic illness, like tuberculosis, also have irregular periods," she said.
The perception now is that the COVID virus itself is not disrupting the menstrual cycle but the general impact from the pandemic is. Women have experienced nothing like this before. Nothing has affected us like this in the last 100 years. But there has been no large-scale study or data collected due to the patriarchal nature of modern medicine.”Dr Suchitra Dalvie
Citing an example from the Zika virus epidemic, Dr Dalvie said that it was only after children were born with deformities that everyone was interested in knowing how pregnant women were affected by the virus.
“Even now everything in medicine, the default body is a human male body. If I ask anyone who is a non-medical person, what do you know about heart attack, they will say that chest pain, sweating, pain in your left arm. Women rarely have these symptoms while having heart attacks. They have nausea and sweating. But we miss the diagnosis because we never study this. Women are never a part of studies. They are always ignored and sidelined,” she added.
“Right now, we are like Jon Snow. We know nothing,” said Dr Anisha Shetty, a 29-year-old gynaecologist, fresh out of medical school.
“As much as we want to ignore it, our menstruation cycles affect our daily life. If menstrual cycles are being affected by COVID-19, women need to know that. We need to know what’s the best way to tackle it. For this, we need to be included in studies. While coronavirus is a new virus and it could take at least a decade until we get to make definitive statements, all women are asking for now is research. That’s the bare minimum,” said Dr Shetty.