Soon after the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, stories began to emerge that some people were experiencing changes to their menstrual cycles after getting vaccinated. For a long time, this did not get much media attention, and numerous medical experts continued to assure the public that the COVID-19 vaccines did not cause these side effects. Such stories remained confined to conversations, internet forums and social media.
Now, a first-of-its-kind, women-led, peer-reviewed study has confirmed the experience of people who menstruate around the world: COVID-19 vaccines can affect periods. With a dataset of almost 4,000 women, both vaccinated and not, using a menstrual cycle-tracking app, researchers found a clinically significant shift in the cycles of newly vaccinated individuals, lasting nearly one day longer on average. Cycles typically returned to normal within a month or two, which was the case with me, as well.
This research has given women like me a sigh of relief — and yet I’m left with a lot of questions. Most importantly: Why were we not informed of this potential side effect before receiving the vaccine? It turns out that menstrual information is not tracked in clinical studies of COVID-19 vaccines. Not to mention, menstrual side effects are not tracked in VAERS, the United States-based database that allows vaccine recipients to enter possible side effects themselves. This is frustrating — women deserve to be listened to, and everyone deserves to be informed. Menstruation is among the most basic benchmarks for the health of women in reproductive age, so any changes are a big deal. Yet talking about menstruation remains taboo. Time and again, reports of altered cycles after receiving COVID-19 vaccines have been minimised and dismissed — especially by well-meaning proponents of vaccination trying to counter unfounded claims that vaccines could harm fertility.
Criticism or caution about vaccines is often swept aside as being irrational or the delusions of conspiracy theorists. Yet it should be possible to discuss any legitimate issue without shame or punishment. Against the background of the ongoing culture wars around vaccines, I am as pro-vaccination as it gets. But this experience shook my position. I don’t feel like science has failed here; I feel like people have failed. In their zeal to prove that vaccines are safe, vaccine proponents ignored actual experiences. We need to remove the taboos around discussing periods. We need to make female reproductive health more central in education and health care. Society, and science, need to listen to women. If not, both may suffer.