It’s natural to be afraid of the side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine. However, the risks of getting COVID-19 while living with Parkinson’s may outweigh any side effects of the vaccine.
In this article, we’ll discuss how COVID-19 vaccines affect Parkinson’s symptoms, how long changes in symptoms last, and the risks of catching COVID-19 if you aren’t vaccinated. We’ll also talk about where you can receive guidance on whether to get vaccinated and help with managing vaccine symptoms.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a new round of updated messenger RNA (mRNA) COVID-19 vaccines (2023-2024 formula) for everyone older than 6 months of age. These new versions of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The previous round of mRNA vaccines were bivalent, meaning they contained blueprints of spike proteins found in two different versions of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. These new vaccines are monovalent — they contain the blueprints of a single variant, called Omicron variant XBB.1.5 and nicknamed “Kraken.”
Health experts have identified XBB.1.5 as being highly transmissible and contagious. People who’ve received previous vaccinations or previously had COVID-19 have still been infected with this newer variant.
Everyone aged 5 and up is eligible for one dose of the new vaccine as long as it’s been at least 2 months since their last vaccination. Infants aged 6 months to children up to 4 years old may receive more than one dose of the new vaccine, depending on their vaccination status. Additionally, those in this age group (6 months to 4 years) who haven’t been vaccinated can get three shots of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine or two shots of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.
People who are moderately or severely immunocompromised (have weakened immune systems) should also receive the new vaccine. The CDC cautions that these people are “at increased risk of severe COVID-19 illness and death.”
The FDA based its approval of the new mRNA vaccines on the safety and effectiveness of previous versions, which were manufactured in the same way as the new round. Per the CDC, millions of Americans have received COVID-19 vaccines “under the most intense safety monitoring program in U.S. history.”
The FDA noted that the benefits of receiving the vaccine outweigh any risks. Potential side effects — both common and rare but serious — are similar to those of previous versions of the vaccine. Common side effects are generally similar to flu symptoms, including temporary fever, chills, aches, and fatigue, along with irritation or soreness at the injection site.
While not everyone experiences worsening Parkinson’s symptoms after getting the COVID-19 vaccine, studies have found that some people do. The changes in symptoms are different for every person.
In one small study, 41 percent of study participants reported that their Parkinson’s disease symptoms worsened after the COVID-19 vaccine. These symptoms included tremors, cognitive issues, fatigue, gait/balance issues, loss of smell, sleep problems, speech difficulty, slowness, and stiffness.
However, another report of almost 200 people found that only two reported worsening Parkinson’s symptoms. The first person had issues with stiffness and difficulty walking, while the second had a tremor that lasted for two weeks.
Speak with your Parkinson’s doctor if your symptoms become worse after receiving the COVID-19 vaccination.
The worsening of Parkinson’s symptoms that some people have experienced after a COVID-19 vaccination tend to last less than a week. Most people reported theirs lasted only 24 to 48 hours.
If you experience a change to or worsening of your Parkinson’s symptoms that don’t resolve within 48 hours, make sure to speak with your Parkinson’s doctor, movement disorder specialist, or neurologist (a doctor who specializes in treating disorders of the brain, spine, and nerves).
While the prospect of developing worsened symptoms following a COVID-19 vaccine may be worrisome, your symptoms are more likely to become worse from a coronavirus infection. The risk of getting COVID-19 may be worse than the risk of vaccine side effects.
COVID-19 worsened the symptoms of many people living with Parkinson’s disease. Infections in general are a common cause for the worsening of Parkinson’s symptoms. Given the severity of COVID-19, the potential for worsening of Parkinson’s symptoms is serious.
One study found that 55 percent of individuals with Parkinson’s disease who contracted COVID-19 reported the worsening of at least one symptom. These symptoms included motor symptoms, mood symptoms, sleep disruption, and cognitive problems.
Another study from the journal Translational Neurodegeneration found that 50 percent of those with Parkinson’s with COVID-19 reported worsening symptoms, including tremors, rigidity, and slowness of movement (bradykinesia).
Overall, the majority of people living with Parkinson’s disease who’ve gotten COVID-19 have experienced a deterioration in Parkinson’s symptoms — either directly from the virus or indirectly.
Should you be worried about getting COVID-19 while living with Parkinson’s disease? Some studies earlier in the pandemic showed that people with Parkinson’s had a higher risk of getting COVID-19 compared to people without it. However, health experts currently believe that Parkinson’s disease does not increase your risk of infection. Rather, they think that there may be a higher risk of complications and that it may take longer to heal once you have COVID-19.
It may be easy to think of COVID-19 as a small cold that you will easily get over. However, some studies from the Journal of Parkinson’s Disease have shown that COVID-19 is more likely to be fatal to people living with Parkinson’s disease than the general population. Some factors that increase the risk of dying of COVID-19 for people with Parkinson’s include older age and advanced stage of Parkinson’s disease.
On the other hand, not all studies agree. Other researchers have reported that people with Parkinson’s don’t have a higher risk of death from COVID-19 compared to the general population. More research is needed to better understand this risk.
Given the risk of infection, increased symptoms, and potential for increased risk of death, the CDC encourages people to receive a COVID-19 vaccination. Make sure to speak with your doctor about recommendations and any hesitancy in getting the vaccine or boosters.
Several professional medical societies and foundations offer guidance and recommendations for people with Parkinson’s on getting vaccinated against COVID-19. The Parkinson’s Foundation provides information on living with Parkinson’s and the interactions between Parkinson’s and COVID-19. The foundation states that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective for those with Parkinson’s.
The American Parkinson Disease Association offers updated information on COVID-19 vaccinations and treatment recommendations, as well as a section on commonly asked questions for Parkinson’s disease and COVID-19. The association emphasizes the importance of COVID-19 vaccination for those with Parkinson’s disease and individuals over the age of 50.
The Michael J. Fox Foundation provides a COVID-19 resource hub. It includes medical information about Parkinson’s disease and COVID-19, as well as updates from the news on COVID-19 vaccines in the context of Parkinson’s disease. The foundation recommends that everyone with Parkinson’s disease should get a COVID-19 vaccine.
The CDC has updated information on COVID-19 vaccines, symptoms of COVID-19, testing for COVID-19, and information on COVID-19 treatments and medications. The CDC recommends getting vaccinated against COVID-19.
If you’re living with Parkinson’s disease, make sure to speak with your doctor when deciding on the best plan and timing for COVID-19 vaccination. They can ensure that you are safely vaccinated under your Parkinson’s care plan. Ask your doctor about ways to safely ease symptoms associated with COVID-19 vaccination and how to prepare in case they temporarily worsen. If you receive the COVID-19 vaccine and your Parkinson’s symptoms become more severe, tell your doctor if they don’t improve.
MyParkinsonsTeam is the social network for people with Parkinson’s disease and their loved ones. On MyParkinsonsTeam, more than 99,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with Parkinson’s.
Are you or a loved one living with Parkinson’s and planning to get the COVID-19 vaccination? Have you noticed a difference in Parkinson’s symptoms after COVID-19 vaccination? Describe your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.