COVID-19 and Flu Viruses Can Worsen Parkinson’s Symptoms
It’s flu season, my least favorite time of year. I always experience some flu-like reactions to the vaccine and get a mild viral infection anyway.
This year, after receiving two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, I experienced strong (not adverse) reactions. Given the association between viruses and the exacerbation of Parkinson’s symptoms, I thought for sure there would be numerous articles addressing the topic. There were very few.
Each year in the U.S., influenza and its related complications result in approximately 226,000 hospitalizations and nearly 24,000 deaths on average, according to the New York State Department of Health.
One of the earliest links between influenza and neural dysfunction was a correlation between the 1918 Spanish flu and increased Parkinson’s diagnoses in the 1940s and early ’50s. Diagnoses of Parkinson’s appeared to increase abruptly, from 1-2% of the U.S. population to 2.5-3%. Lead researcher and neurobiologist Richard Smeyne said, “Basically, 50 percent more people in those years got Parkinson’s.”
Investigators found that the H5N1 strain of influenza infected nerve cells and traveled to the brain, resulting in the development of Parkinson’s-like symptoms in mice. Along with COVID-19, influenza is still very much a risk to the health of those with chronic illness.
An article published last November in The Lancet Neurology notes that neurological complications of COVID-19 are reported in up to 85% of patients, including minimally symptomatic or asymptomatic people. As many as 65% of people with COVID-19 present with hyposmia, or loss of smell, a common early-stage symptom of Parkinson’s disease. This has suggested to the medical community that a hypothetical link between COVID-19 and Parkinson’s disease may exist.
Researchers warn that a post-pandemic increase in Parkinson’s symptoms, like the one that followed the 1918 flu pandemic, might occur in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is likely that COVID-19 “long-haulers” will be particularly susceptible to neuro-invasive symptoms. One-third of people who have the virus that causes COVID-19 are likely to experience some type of associated neurological illness, according to Henry Ford Health Systems. Viruses make Parkinson’s symptoms worse, and Parkinson’s makes virus symptoms worse.
The three most pervasive overlapping symptoms I experience are body pain, deep fatigue, and respiratory difficulty. Parkinson’s affects muscle control, including muscles in the throat and chest. Many Parkinson’s patients may already have difficulty swallowing and breathing. I already have these symptoms with Parkinson’s, and an increase in severity due to a virus is a horrible experience.
Normal days have non-“off” periods that come with lucidity and movement fluidity. I use those times to be productive. When a virus hits, those times disappear. It’s like a week or two of being locked in the worst possible “off” period. Every day with a virus involves a struggle to move, breathe, and even think clearly.
I am a lousy patient. I like being productive and really dislike sitting around feeling unproductive. It’s my habit to get up every day, show up prepared to accomplish something, and lay one brick down on the path of my personal brain training program.
Pushing myself to do this in the middle of a virus and Parkinson’s overlap can be disastrous. Pushing through pain, fatigue, and difficulty breathing is more than exhausting. It triggers crossing the threshold of emotion management. My well of resources is bone dry. I am running on emotional fumes.
The brain shapes itself around whatever it is asked to do each day. Sitting with pain and suffering that is not pushing, not angry, and not emotional takes focused effort. I find that hard to do with a viral infection, but not impossible.
This multiviral season has shown me something different. There is wisdom to be discovered in sitting with suffering, even during the worst of times. Personal brain training requires sustained concentration every day, and that can’t happen when the brain is running amok. Pain should not be an excuse for letting the mind spin aimlessly and turn to mush.
The overlap of viral infections and Parkinson’s provides an opportunity to practice sitting with suffering. The more I practice, the more skilled I get, and the more my well of resources is replenished — keeping me from crossing that emotion dysregulation threshold.
The steps to take: Keep the brain active and healthy, mask up, wash your hands, and get vaccinated. Mindfulness practice when in pain is not easy, but it’s necessary to avoid unhealthy habits from forming. Be patient and let time and healing take their course. I do this because if I don’t, then it’s a trip into Dante’s Inferno. It is not a trip I want to take.
How does a virus affect you? What steps do you take to live better with a chronic disease and viruses? Please share in the comments below.
Note: Parkinson’s News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Parkinson’s News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to Parkinson’s disease.