The Period Flu Causes Flu-Like Symptoms in the Days Before Your Period—Here's What to Know
It's not contagious, but it can make you feel downright miserable.
"Period flu" is not an official medical term, nor is it the flu as in influenza, the contagious respiratory virus that hits hard in the fall and winter. But for people who experience period flu in the days before their period, the name fits well. That's because the signs can feel a lot like the flu, or like you're about to come down with the flu—causing headaches, fever, GI distress, exhaustion, and flu-like other symptoms.
Period flu is "kind of similar to PMS symptoms, but it's a little bit more exaggerated," Tamika Cross, MD, an ob-gyn at Serenity Women's Health & MedSpa in Pearland, Texas, tells Health. Just like PMS, period flu typically strikes at the same point in your cycle—after ovulation and before your period, Dr. Cross says. Some health professionals consider period flu to be part of PMS, since some of the symptoms echo PMS symptoms.
Not everyone will experience period flu, but those who do describe a specific set of symptoms and concerns. Here's what you need to know.
What causes period flu?
There's no single, clear-cut cause for the period flu. Experts "don't 100 percent know" what's behind this cluster of symptoms, Dr. Cross says. The likely culprit: hormone fluctuations.
"The sudden drop in hormones during the time between ovulation and [your] period is the cause of PMS symptoms, including period flu," Kelly Culwell, MD, board-certified ob-gyn and women's health expert, tells Health. While estrogen drops during this time frame, hormone-like chemicals called prostaglandins increase. Prostaglandins are to blame for uterine cramps, and they "can also cause abdominal cramps and diarrhea," Dr. Culwell says. (Many people describe their period flu symptoms as more like the "stomach flu," which is not a real diagnosis but the colloquial term for gastroenteritis.)
Hormonal shifts also influence your brain chemistry, causing levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin to fluctuate. This in turn can lead to a variety of symptoms, including the kind of fatigue that happens when you get the real flu, says Dr. Cross.
Common symptoms of period flu
Period flu can lead to many symptoms that are familiar if you've ever had PMS, such as breast tenderness, irritability, and fatigue, Dr. Culwell says. But the most common symptoms are reminiscent of the real flu: joint pain, muscle aches, low-grade fever, nausea, headaches, and dizziness.
Period flu symptoms get more intense the week before your period begins, but the good news is that once you get your period and your flow decreases, period flu symptoms generally decrease as well, says Dr. Cross.
Period flu treatment options
Options are available help vanquish period flu—or at least ease the severity of the symptoms.
First up: Over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDS), such as ibuprofen, Aleve, Motrin, and Advil. Lifestyle modifications can be effective as well, Dr. Cross says, including drinking more water and exercising. Opting for certain foods, such as whole grains and vegetables, may also help alleviate symptoms, as can getting enough sleep.
"Rest, fluids, pain medications, and anti-inflammatory medications like Tylenol or ibuprofen will usually help treat the symptoms," Dr. Culwell says.
Ultimately, there is no single medication or modification that can end period flu. Instead, the goal is to treat symptoms, Dr. Cross says. Sometimes these first-line, low-level treatment options don't do the trick. In those situations, birth control pills can help by regulating hormone levels, she says.
"If the symptoms are really impacting your quality of life—such as [being] unable to work, go to school, or participate in normal activities—you should talk to your doctor about possible prevention options like hormonal birth control," Dr. Culwell suggests.
When to reach out to your doctor
Don't hesitate to tell your health care provider if period flu symptoms strike hard each month, or linger.
Along with proposing treatment options, your doctor will also check to make sure there isn't another medical issue—like the actual flu, or conditions that cause PMS-like symptoms such as chronic fatigue syndrome or depression—causing your symptoms, Dr. Cross says.
Ultimately, the period flu can be miserable—but unlike the actual flu that can leave you sidelined with chills, body aches, a sore throat, and nasal congestion, it isn't contagious, and it's unlikely to lead to anything serious.
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