COVID-19 and Flu Viruses Can Worsen Parkinson’s Symptoms

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by Dr. C |

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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.

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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.

Comments

Margot Wilhelm avatar

Margot Wilhelm

Mine is an up and down story. In 1990 I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia which presented with lots of pain wandering around my body. Nights when I was awake I got up and did some work/play on my computer. In keeping my brain busy it didn’t have to focus on the pain only. Warm water exercises helped too. Then I was introduced to being mindful of whatever I did and meditation. The years following were enjoyable as we travelled a lot in the summer.
This good life came to an abrupt end in 2011 when I had a hard time breathing and was subsequently diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension. There was still a silver lining in that I was a good candidate for surgery. As this was a life or death decision to make, mindfulness and meditation brought me through the many rough days.
The biggest disappointment came when doctors told me that the surgery was not as successful as was hoped for. The pressure between the heart and the lungs was and still is more than double from what it should be. This year on Christmas Eve I have my 10 year anniversary wearing oxygen day and night.

It must have been a couple of years after that I first noticed a tremor in my left hand. I mentioned it to my GP but since it was only little, she thought not much of it. When it became stronger I
showed it to her again. I was referred to a neurologist who told me that it mostly was an essential tremor with just a little bit of Parkinsonism, but it’s not to worry about.
My next visit was to see the Respirologist 6 months later who noticed the shaking. I told him what the neurologist had said but he insisted that to him it looked like PD because his dad had it.
The next visit at the neurologist, she confirmed it. In the meantime a year was gone. The most I have learned about the disease is by reading . Dr visits are from one year to the next and now we only can talk to them on the phone.

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Jean Mellano avatar

Jean Mellano

Hi. Dr. C
I can relate, I get a common cold and my PD symptoms go off the charts (bradyk, fatigue, akathisia). I got the first shot of covid vaccine 2 weeks ago and I woke up the next morning with my left side paralyzed. (my left side is most affected by PD). It took all my willpower and strength to get my body out of the bed. It took almost an hour. shortly thereafter, I was back o feeling like my old crappy PS self. I cant wait for the second shot on thursday LOL

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Gretchen avatar

Gretchen

This post struck home. My maternal grandmother and paternal grandfather contracted the flu in 1918. Both had PD later in life. I too have PD, as did my sister. I contracted Covid in June. I recovered well but am experiencing intensified tremor.
To all, do not lose your focus on protecting yourself from COVID. If you are able, get the vaccine ASAP.

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C Brown avatar

C Brown

My PD husband has been experiencing abnormal fatigue in the week since receiving the Covid vaccine. That said, he does not regret getting the vaccine one bit and is counting down the weeks (3 left) until the final dose.

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