If you get periods, you know about pre-menstrual syndrome. PMS, as it’s usually known, is the collection of physical and emotional annoyances that can occur shortly before your period is due. But for some people, that time of the month can include symptoms that feel like an actual illness.
Is “period flu” real?
Period flu is real in the sense that people experience it and have given it a name, but it’s not the flu, it’s not contagious, and it isn’t an illness with a medical definition. In other words, there’s no “period flu” diagnosis you could get from a doctor.
What are the symptoms of period flu?
Symptoms that have been called “period flu” include:
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Weakness or a shaky feeling
- Hot flashes
- Sweating at night or when you otherwise wouldn’t expect to feel hot
- Back pain
- Abdominal pain
Some people also report an elevated temperature, runny nose, or sore throat.
One reason for these symptoms is that prostaglandins are high just before and at the start of your period. These are hormones that help the cervix to open, but they can also cause movement in your gut (hence the diarrhea and gas). They are also used by the body to fight infections, and play a role in symptoms like fever. So it’s not surprising that an oncoming period would feel similar to an illness.
There are other hormones at play, of course. Your estrogen and progesterone levels are dropping at the same time, and there are a variety of theories about what exactly causes the worst “period flu” symptoms.
Period flu symptoms overlap with other illnesses and conditions
Before chalking up your symptoms to period flu, consider whether there might be something else going on. If you’ve got nausea, chills, and weakness, and you don’t normally have those before your period, it’s entirely possible that you have the actual flu (or COVID, or a stomach bug, or something else.)
Endometriosis is a condition where the uterine lining grows in places other than the uterus. Symptoms can include extremely painful periods, pain during sex, and gastrointestinal issues like nausea, diarrhea, and painful bowel movements.
Premenstrual dysphoric disorder is another condition associated with periods and PMS, but its main feature is changes in mood. People can be irritable or depressed to the point of being suicidal, or may have panic attacks or fatigue. You may have physical symptoms too, including cramps, headaches, or muscle pain.
Perimenopause can happen years before your period stops, and it can include hot flashes, mood swings, and heavier, lighter, or irregular periods.
Finally, it’s worth considering whether something else may be affecting your health aside from your period or an infectious illnesses. In one online discussion of period flu, a person said that their symptoms turned out to be due to an allergy to acetaminophen (Tylenol), a common painkiller people often take to ease period symptoms.
What to do about period flu
First of all, if your symptoms are severe, talk to a professional, such as your gynecologist. They can help you figure out if you might be experiencing one of the conditions above and prescribe an appropriate treatment. They can also help to rule out the possibility that something else might be going on, like an actual infectious illness.
If your symptoms aren’t too bad, consider taking an over-the-counter, anti-inflammatory medication like ibuprofen. This blocks the formation of prostaglandins, thus reducing symptoms, but the catch is that you need to take it before things get bad. If you track your period and tend to know when it’s about to start, consider taking a Motrin the day before.
Another thing to discuss with your doctor is whether a change in birth control could help. If you don’t use a hormonal method, starting one could help to tame some of your symptoms. There are also medications that may help with some of the symptoms: antidepressants may be appropriate for some people who have issues with depressive feelings, for example.
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