What is period flu? Causes, symptoms and how to prevent it

Feeling bogged down during that time of the month and can’t figure out why? Here’s what’s really going on…

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The monthly menstrual cycle’s no walk in the park for females, often bringing with it a host of unpleasant side-effects making you feel not so great. But is there really such thing as the period flu? And what can we do to mitigate against it?

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What is period flu?

While some may breeze through their monthly period with only minor discomfort, for others it can be a painful and uncomfortable time where your body feels like it’s under attack and there’s no solution but to ride the wave.

These unpleasant symptoms have been coined by some as the ‘period flu’, but in reality they’re part and parcel of what is known in medical terms as premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and, for some, dysmenorrhea (exceedingly painful menstrual cycles), which can be triggered either by a period starting, or due to an underlying reproductive system disorder.

Some may also experience premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), which involves similar symptoms to PMS alongside more negative mental and emotional responses.

These include feelings anxious, depressed, binge eating tendencies and problems sleeping. For urgent advice on this, call 111 or contact your GP for an emergency appointment.

How does period flu affect athletic performance?

If you’re prone to painful periods, you may find this results in a dip in performance every month. Although some studies suggest that you could be coming into your peak fitness phase around the time of menstruation, this increased capacity for stress can be overshadowed by cramps and fatigue.

If you fall into this bracket, it could be worth tailoring your training plan to match different stages in your menstrual cycle, scheduling in easier and low-intensity efforts to coincide with when your body’s also dealing being on your period.

If the odds just aren’t in your favour and your period hits the same time as race day, we’ve got some useful tips on how to deal with race-day PMS from Dr Joanne Mallinson.

How long does period flu last?

Painful period symptoms can arise during the four to eight-day period of menstrual bleeding, with some also feeling cramps or other pains the week or so leading up to menstruation as the body prepares itself.

Others may also experience symptoms after ovulation, which occurs approximately 10-16 days before menstruation commences. For most, period pains should become less severe after an initial couple of days, though this will vary for the individual.

Causes of period flu

It’s not fully understood why women suffer with PMS, but it could be due to the changes in hormones throughout a menstrual cycle. Female hormones effect multiple physiological systems in the body, including how the body regulates heat, the heart and respiratory system, the metabolism, and the muscles.

Namely, quantities of oestrogen and progesterone rise and fall throughout a cycle, and experts have linked these fluctuations with having an impact on training and racing.

Symptoms of period flu

While ‘period flu’ is not an official medical diagnosis, some experience painful and uncomfortable menstruation symptoms before and around the time of menstruation. These can include:

  • Cramps
  • Bloating
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Dizziness/disorientation
  • Stuffy head and headaches
  • Low on energy
  • Mood changes
  • Fatigue
  • Achy body especially lower back
  • Change in appetite

How to prevent period flu

Though many of these symptoms are hard to avoid all-together, there are a few things you can do to manage the discomfort.

Pain relief Over-the-counter painkillers that are anti-inflammatory and don’t contain steroids like ibuprofen should ease symptoms.

Anti-diarrheal medication To ease symptoms of nausea or diarrhoea.

Heat therapy A hot water bottle or heating pad on the belly or lower back can help ease aches and cramps.

Exercise If you feel well enough for some light movement, exercise has been shown to reduce the severity of PMS.

Sleep Try to get plenty of rest and keep stress low.

Avoid smoking, caffeine, and alcohol These can aggravate PMS symptoms.

Hormonal medicine Hormonal birth control can help ease the pain from heavy periods and make them more regular, but be sure to consult with your doctor to make sure this is the right option for you.

If symptoms persist or become unmanageable, this could be a sign of an underlying reproductive health issue or other illnesses. In these cases, it’s important that you contact your doctor or gynaecologist for medical advice. Alternatively, call 111 for advice on how to get the support and help you need.

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Top image: Morgan Sarkissian / Unsplash