What Is Period Flu? It’s a Real Thing and Here’s What You Should Know

Updated: Jan. 29, 2021

Here's how to tell if your nausea, bloating, or fatigue could be the period flu or something more serious, and how to manage it.

You may be no stranger to premenstrual syndrome (PMS): Over 90 percent of women report experiencing some of the cumbersome symptoms that appear before their period, including bloating, cramping, fatigue, headaches, and moodiness, according to the Office on Women’s Health.

Beyond these PMS symptoms, some women also say they feel flu-ish, a term colloquially dubbed the “period flu.” While it’s not an official diagnosis, here’s what might be going on—and how you can feel well.

Period flu symptoms

After ovulation, which occurs when the ovary releases an egg, levels of the hormones estrogen and progesterone begin to drop. As you get your period, prostaglandins are released.

These hormones help your uterine lining shed and cause cramps. “Prostaglandins are one of the reasons women suffer from painful periods,” says Christine Greves, MD, a board-certified ob-gyn at Winne Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies in Orlando, Florida.

In addition to causing cramping, prostaglandins also may be responsible for symptoms that resemble the flu—like headaches, nausea, and diarrhea.

Some women may even experience an elevated temperature or fever, but that’s a far less commonly reported symptom, says Dr. Greves. (These are the period problems you should never ignore.)

The period flu shouldn’t be considered “normal,” says Felice Gersh, MD, a board-certified ob-gyn and integrative medicine doctor in Irvine, California.

“The menstrual cycle is a vital sign of well-being,” she says. If you’re feeling physically awful every month because of PMS symptoms, including the period flu, you’ll want to consider the underlying cause. Simply put: It can help clue you into what’s going on inside your body.

Period flu causes

It’s natural to have an uptick in inflammation during your period because prostaglandins are inflammatory hormones. However, an overproduction of prostaglandins exacerbates the body’s inflammatory response, explains Dr. Gersh. And that’s not great when it comes to PMS.

Feeling feverish, nauseated, and achy? That’s a sign that your body is fighting something, says Dr. Gersh. Frequently, that’s a virus, but it also could be because of uncontrolled inflammation.

Lifestyle factors, like poor sleep, unmanaged stress, lack of physical activity, and nutrient deficiencies may all affect how your hormones function, and lead to this inflammation that causes severe or unconventional PMS symptoms, she explains.

You also may suspect your period flu symptoms, such as nausea, bloating, and fatigue could be related to the early signs of pregnancy. However, there is no association between the two, unless your period is late.

woman with headache sitting in bedOscar Wong/Getty Images

Track your cycle

The best thing you can do is to track how you feel and your symptoms along your cycle, says Dr. Greves. If you’re nauseated several days every month—and you know to expect that—you won’t be caught off-guard when it happens again.

It can be very easy to forget what you were feeling and when from month-to-month, which is why writing it down can be so helpful. Apps like Flo and MyFLO make this easy. These can help you collect enough data to know what your norm is.

By the way, some people who have an intrauterine device (IUD) find that they don’t have the bleeding that would mark their period. An IUD does not prevent you from ovulating, explains Dr. Greves, so you can still get PMS symptoms. That makes tracking all the more important—whether you bleed or not.

Period flu treatments

When you need relief, Dr. Greves recommends taking an anti-prostaglandin medication. You know these as NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), like ibuprofen or aspirin. She says ginger could also help lessen nausea, and vitamin B6 may also decrease certain PMS symptoms, like bloating and irritability. Take no more than 100 mg of B6 per day, she advises.

Dr. Gersh adds that you might consider taking 500 mg of magnesium (which may be effective for migraines), along with a curcumin (the main active ingredient in turmeric) supplement (an anti-inflammatory).

Period flu prevention

All of the healthy lifestyle habits you’ve been told are important for your general well-being will also have an effect on your PMS symptoms, says Dr. Gersh. These are often dubbed as self-care: good sleep hygiene (e.g. going to sleep at set time each night, staying off of electronics before bed), a diet of whole foods (produce, healthy fats, whole grains), staying physically active, and spending time in nature can help lower stress and inflammation so you can feel better as soon as next month, she says.

The takeaway

Period problems vary by individual, but if you feel your period pain is disruptive to your daily life, you should talk with your doctor. Sometimes period symptoms can signal an underlying condition, such as endometriosis. This is a painful condition where tissue that’s similar to that in the uterine lining grows in places outside the uterus.

If you are worried that you actually have a virus that has made you sick, then you should call your doctor to talk over symptoms to rule out possible exposure to either influenza or Covid-19, and what steps to take next to care for yourself.

It can be difficult to know if symptoms are caused by a virus or something else. Revisit your period tracking apps, check if your symptoms are in the range of normal for you, and talk to your doctor about anything you may be concerned about.