Feel Sick During Your Menstrual Cycle? It Could Be The Period Flu

Between irregular periods, period product costs, and the general annoyance of cramps, menstruators are already dealing with a lot. For those that experience the "period flu" — things are even worse. While not actually influenza (the viral infection known as the flu), the symptoms of period flu can feel extremely similar and include everything from headaches to body temperature fluctuations to back and joint/muscle pain to nausea. Despite this, Dr. Sidney Wu, an OB-GYN at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City told Forbes, "The term 'period flu' is not an actual medical term. It is a casual phrase that people use to describe some of the physical symptoms that are grouped as part of premenstrual syndrome (PMS)." Dr. Wu explained that PMS changes can occur before and/or during a person's period and can include both physical and emotional symptoms, while the more extreme symptoms of the period flu tend to be predominately physical.

Period flu symptoms can last anywhere between a few days to up to two weeks for some menstruators. The symptoms are typically their worst about two days before your period starts but this can vary by person. The severity of the symptoms can also largely vary by person, so it's important to know what your body's normal is. Let's dive into what causes period flu and how you can help treat it.

What causes period flu

This is where it gets tricky, doctors don't really know what causes period flu. PMS in general is not well-understood by researchers, and a singular cause for it has never been wholly identified beyond the general knowledge that hormonal fluctuations play a part. Since period flu is a type of PMS, its cause is similarly elusive. Contributing hormonal factors include the fact that estrogen levels drop in the body in the week before your period. Low levels of estrogen can not only affect serotonin but can also decrease dopamine levels in the brain, leading to flu symptoms like insomnia and fatigue.

At the same time, estrogen levels drop and your body starts to produce high levels of prostaglandins (chemicals that help the uterus contract in order to shed its lining). These chemicals can cause unintended consequences, as Dr. Molly O'Shea explained to Brit+Co, "Prostaglandins can cause intestinal cramps, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, a feeling of being flushed, and general achiness." Plus, these chemicals can have a significant impact on your body temperature leading to what can feel like a fever and/or chills. These are all symptoms that can be easily mistaken for the flu, especially if they are more severe. To make matters worse, research suggests that the body's immune system (specifically your gastrointestinal tract) can react badly to these higher levels of prostaglandins, leading to cramps, pain, and diarrhea during your period.

What can you do about it

While there isn't a foolproof way to stave off all symptoms, research does suggest that period flu symptoms can be linked to lifestyle habits like diet, exercise, and sleep. Processed foods, excess sugar, fried foods, alcohol, and caffeine intake can make symptoms worse by negatively impacting your overall health. Maintaining a clean diet, minimizing alcohol and caffeine around your period, and following tips to stay active during your period could help you manage or even minimize some of your period flu symptoms. 

It's also important to remember that, flu symptoms or not, the average menstruator loses up to three ounces of blood per period, so water intake is extremely important and can help to minimize any dizziness or nausea. Since prostaglandins can cause a heightened immune response (and therefore lead to increased inflammation), most doctors recommend over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen and naproxen. These can not only help with inflammation symptoms like bloating and cramping but can also combat body aches and pain.

Lastly, experiencing period flu does not necessarily mean you don't have the actual flu — so keep a close eye on your body's typical monthly symptoms to ensure you recognize when something is abnormal. If you continue having symptoms after your period is over, experience new or worsening symptoms, or have an actual fever you should speak with your doctor. Similarly, if your monthly period flu symptoms are debilitating, talk with your gynecologist about options to help you manage your symptoms.