People with periods know how terrible that time of the month can be, even without reaching the level of something like endometriosis or premenstrual dysphoric disorder. The mood swings, the exhaustion, the cramps — they can wipe anybody out.
As if those weren’t enough, cold symptoms such as a runny nose and fatigue can be connected to your cycle, too. Experiencing these icky feelings during this time is often known as “period flu.”
What’s The Deal With Period Flu, Exactly?
It’s not the actual flu, thankfully, though it may feel that way.
“Period flu is flu-like symptoms that develop around the time of your period and prior to your period,” said Dr. Purvi Parikh, an adult and pediatric allergist and immunologist at Allergy & Asthma Network, a Virginia-based nonprofit.
While “period flu” isn’t a medical diagnosis, the symptoms you experience are real.
“The increase in estrogen that occurs during the first part of the cycle and peaks prior to ovulation can exacerbate seasonal allergy symptoms, such as runny nose and itchy eyes,” according to Dr. Alecia Fields, an OB-GYN in Kentucky and a fellow with the Physicians for Reproductive Health advocacy group. Additionally, the hormonal changes that occur during your menstrual cycle can lead to fatigue, headaches, hot flashes, and joint or muscle pain, she added.
“Estrogen may increase histamine production by mast cells, an immune system component,” said Dr. Ashanda Saint Jean, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at New York Medical College. “Symptoms from an increase in histamine mimic that of an allergic reaction or brief flu-like illness,” and may include nausea, dizziness and generalized malaise, she said.
Further, Dr. Malika Gupta, a board-certified allergist and immunologist in California, pointed to how some types of estrogen activate your immune system’s T cells.
“Activated T cells, in this case, are what will give you the ‘meh’ symptoms often associated with the flu,” she said.
Other than that, though, research on the topic isn’t super expansive.
“Much of the data can be gleaned from what occurs in hormonal shifts when a woman becomes pregnant,” Gupta said. Still, she emphasized that the effect on people is real, and “it is not just you.”
Period Flu vs. The Actual Flu
So, how do you know if the lousy feeling is your period, the flu or — if you have really bad luck — both? Fields recommended noting the days you’re bleeding and what symptoms you have.
“If your symptoms occur monthly and coincide with your menstrual cycle, there is a good chance that they are related to the hormone changes your body is experiencing,” she said.
You’ll want to be as specific as possible, as other conditions can stop and start, too.
“It is important to identify if the symptoms are of a cyclic, recurrent nature, or due to an acute respiratory viral syndrome or seasonal allergies,” Saint Jean added. This is especially critical for figuring out the right treatment.
Just as periods can vary in duration, the average length of period flu symptoms may vary person to person, with experts listing anywhere from one to six days. So, it’s probably best to pay close attention to what that timeline looks like for you each month.
You should also look at the type of symptoms you are experiencing, according to Parikh.
“Allergies usually don’t have a temperature and last for weeks,” she said, noting they don’t typically entail vomiting, nausea or coughing either. “Allergies also tend to have more itchy symptoms and don’t have GI [gastrointestinal] symptoms.”
At the same time, many symptoms of period flu aren’t unique, so you may want to get a flu test done, Parikh said. Fields agreed that seeing a doctor can help eliminate other possibilities, such as a thyroid disorder.
How To Treat Period Flu
Unfortunately, there’s not a lot you can do to address your symptoms other than typical at-home treatments, though what those are will depend on the severity.
Saint Jean said that NSAIDs (such as ibuprofen and naproxen) usually attend to both allergy problems and pain problems. In addition to these medications, milder symptoms may be alleviated by exercise and general stress reduction practices (such as deep breathing, yoga and guided imagery), Fields added.
If those aren’t cutting it, Fields suggested talking to your doctor about birth control, antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), or cognitive behavioral therapy. After all, dealing with flu-like symptoms isn’t just rough physically, but emotionally and mentally too. As research tells us, our mental health and physical health are connected, affecting each other cyclically.
Nonmedicinal treatments can include drinking herbal tea, getting a massage, meditating, or using heating pads and St. Johnswort, according to Saint Jean. Gupta said she personally likes a “cold plunge as a quick way to knock the symptoms out.”
But if you experience coughing, a fever, abnormal breathing or other unusual issues, you should see a doctor, Saint Jean said.
Ultimately, you’ll probably have to try different approaches to see what works for you, since every person’s body is so different. But hey, at least you’re not the only one who knows the struggle.