Yes, the 'Period Flu' Is a Real Thing

When your uterine lining sheds, an immune response is triggered that can mirror your body's response to the actual flu. 

Person laying down in bed with a heating pad over their stomach
Photo: Thais Ramos Varela/Stocksy/Adobe Stock

Between the cramps, bloating, breakouts, and back pain, having a monthly period sucks. And for some of us, the laundry list of period ailments can include flu-like symptoms such as headaches, nausea, body aches, and even a slight fever.

To find out how to make "period flu" a little more bearable, we spoke to Felice Gersh, M.D., OB-GYN and medical director of Integrative Medical Group of Irvine, California, who gave us the lowdown.

What Is "Period Flu" and What Are the Symptoms?

The "period flu" is not an actual virus or illness — it's your body's reaction to the natural process of menstruation. But it is a very real thing that affects many women during their time of the month — and the symptoms are comparable or identical to symptoms of the flu (hence where it got its name), Dr. Gersh explains.

"Menstrual-related symptoms that are flu-like include bloating, fatigue, nausea, diarrhea, a feeling of heat, and headaches," she tells us. Of course, menstrual cramps are a well-known period symptom, but intestinal cramps can be associated with the flu, and some women also experience this type of cramping, she adds.

Why Do Some of Us Experience "Period Flu?"

While there is no actual virus present, Dr. Gersh tells us that these symptoms are nonetheless brought on by the "activation of the immune system."

Quick explainer: "There are two basic mechanisms in the body that trigger the immune system — the presence of damaged or dead cells or the presence of infected cells with an invading pathogen," she says. "The immune response is identical in either case and the symptoms experienced can mirror each other."

So, in the situation of the period flu, the immune response is triggered not by the presence of the flu virus, but by the dying and dead cells of the endometrium, aka the shedding of the uterine lining, Dr. Gersh explains.

Inflammation can also play a huge role in your flu-like symptoms. In times when you're actually ill, this is your body's way of protecting it from those "invading pathogens." In the case of menstruation, your body produces lipid signaling agents called prostaglandins that have high levels of inflammation to create cramping in order to assist in shedding the lining. At the same time, the change in hormones leads to an increase in the production of inflammatory cytokines [small proteins] within the uterine cavity and throughout the body. "In some women, the menstrual-related inflammation becomes excessive, resulting [in] the production of significant flu-like symptoms."

How Can You Differentiate "Period Flu" From an Actual Illness?

Period flu symptoms can overlap with regular flu symptoms — or even the symptoms of another illness. "It's so important to monitor and record all symptoms experienced every month," stresses Dr. Gersh. "If the symptoms are the same each month and timed the same with the cycle, the probability is that they are period related." But of course, if you're ever in doubt, or symptoms worsen, it's best to consult your doctor.

How Can You Treat "Period Flu" and Is It Preventable?

The standard period treatment of ibuprofen and a heating pad can be helpful, but when your symptoms are this bad, Dr. Gersh says you may want to try antioxidants and minerals that can help reduce inflammation, like zinc, selenium, magnesium, calcium, vitamin E, vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin C, and B vitamins (particularly B6, folate, and B12). There are some other herbal remedies that can also reduce these symptoms, such as chaste tree, ashwagandha, and rhodiola, she adds.

Bigger lifestyle changes, like "stress control, improved sleep, regular exercise, and getting adequate sunlight," can also make a huge difference in treating 'period flu' symptoms and even preventing them, says Dr. Gersh. That's because the health of your gut and its microbiome, as well as your emotional state, can both be predetermining factors of how bad your symptoms will be, she adds.

Dr. Gersh cautions that if your flu-like symptoms during your period are severe, there could be another underlying health condition at play, so consulting your ob-gyn or primary care doc is the best choice.

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