Yes, 'Period Flu' Is Totally A Thing
Nausea, fatigue, body aches…sounds like the flu, right? But if it happens regularly around your period, it’s likely what experts often refer to as the “period flu.”
While “period flu” is not a formal medical term or diagnosis, Alyssa Dweck, MD, Westchester-based gynecologist and assistant clinical professor at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, knows exactly what I’m talking about. “My patients complain about all kinds of different illness that seem to come about right before their period, and they’re always cyclical,” she says. It’s common for women to experience flu-like symptoms and even a fever between ovulation and the start of their period.
So what’s really going on with your body? Below, doctors weigh in on this period phenomenon and how to Get. Some. Relief. Already.
Can your period make you feel like you have the flu?
Well, you don’t actually have the influenza virus, but your body is mimicking similar symptoms. “My feeling from a medical standpoint is that this is all part of PMS syndrome, which can have both physical and emotional symptoms,” Dr. Dweck says. Some of her clients’ most common PMS complaints are all reminiscent of flu symptoms, including irritability, breast soreness, headaches, joint pain, and excessive fatigue.
Dr. Dweck also points out that often times women with pre-existing conditions, like autoimmune issues or rheumatoid arthritis, will even experience exacerbation or a flare-up of their symptoms just before their period—and then things get better after they menstruate. “So it does make you wonder, [even though] it’s not in the literature, if there’s some sort of immune hit that occurs just before your period bringing these flu-like symptoms to life,” Dr. Dweck notes.
There are no studies that show your immune system is actually taking a hit. So you can just blame the hormonal rollercoaster that is PMS until there’s more conclusive science on this.
Why does it happen for some people with periods but not others?
One word: hormones. “In the mid-portion of your cycle when you ovulate, your estrogen and progesterone levels start to surge, and they decline when you do not get pregnant and get your period,” Dr. Dweck explains. “So that precipitous decline, particularly in estrogen, is what causes a lot of the symptoms.”
But that’s not all (lucky you!). “The other thing that’s going on as we get into our periods is that the uterus cranks out a chemical called prostaglandin,” says Jane Minkin, MD, clinical professor in the department of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at the Yale University School of Medicine.
Prostaglandin causes that annoying AF uterine cramping. It also causes the muscles to contract and can give you gastrointestinal discomfort and diarrhea. According to Dr. Minkin, “prostaglandins can also make you feel like you have the flu and even give you a temperature.” Fun, right?
But many women also change up their lifestyle habits before their period starts, Dr. Dweck points out. For instance, you might up your sugar and salty snack intake, which can cause swelling and inflammation, she explains. And you may have increased water retention, which could lead to joint pain, Dr. Dweck says. The effects of these diet and lifestyle changes right before your period can mimic flu like symptoms too. So that’s definitely something you want to keep in mind.
Should feeling sick before your period ever be a cause for concern?
In other words, is period flu…dangerous?
Period flu symptoms usually last between ovulation and the start of your period. When menstruation begins, both Dr. Dweck and Dr. Minkin generally see their patients’ symptoms dissipate. So, in general, while you might feel icky, you’ll be totally fine in a few days.
“If your symptoms are so bad, physical or emotional, that they’re interrupting with your day-to-day life or interfering with your relationship, then you need to get checked out,” Dr. Dweck says. There could be a different underlying issue at play, and the timing with your period is coincidence. For example, maybe you have a thyroid disorder, which exhibits similar symptoms (excessive fatigue, weakness, muscle and body aches) Dr. Dweck notes.
And while prostaglandin can make you feel feverish, if you have an actual temperature of 101 or 102, that’s not period flu—that’s something else, Dr. Dweck says. “And if that’s persistent, you should get that checked out.”
If I do feel like crap around my period, how can I find some relief?
These are the best cures for those pesky flu-like symptoms:
- Pop a NSAID. These are technically known as prostaglandin synthetase inhibitors. “They block the making of more prostaglandins,” Dr. Minkin says. “So the key there is taking them early when you start feeling achy, and fluish.” These pills include aspirin, Motrin, and Advil.
- Move around. Exercise helps everything (but you already knew that, right?). “Exercise has been shown over and over again to help with menstrual cramps and PMS symptoms overall,” Dr. Dweck says. Aerobic exercise will bring you right back to life by also reducing water retention and excess fluid in your joints.
- Talk to your doc about birth control. Your estrogen levels decline when you get your period, as you learned. So taking birth control can be a huge help. “Birth control pills keep your hormone levels steady throughout the month by preventing ovulation,” Dr. Dweck says.
- Monitor your diet. Instead of upping your caffeine intake to stay awake or eating more junk food (because: cravings), which can create inflammation that leads to flu-like joint pain, try drinking tea (it’s naturally anti-inflammatory). And next time you want to go in on that entire bag of potato chips, try a snack lower in sodium instead.
If no intervention is really working for you and you keep feeling horrible when flow is comin’ to town, speak with your gynecologist. They can do a proper workup and help you feel A-okay when your period comes your way.
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