On a Saturday morning last month, I crawled back into bed at 9.30am and didn’t get out until 1.30pm. I had chills, sweats, nausea, lower back pain, stomach cramps, an upset tummy, aches all over and a persistent headache. I assumed it was some kind of flu, a lurgy brought home from nursery by one of my children. But then I checked the date and realised I was due on my period. That accounted for the back pain and stomach cramps, but what about the other symptoms? Surely it wasn’t normal to feel this awful because of an impending period? It was only my second period in seven years, so my body was still getting used to everything that comes with having a regular cycle, but I couldn’t ever remember feeling like this before.
I consulted Dr. Google and discovered that “period flu” is a very real thing. The realisation that what was happening to me was, if not “normal”, then definitely something that affects other women, brought some brief respite (along with paracetamol, a hot water bottle and making my husband take care of the kids for the day).
While “period flu” isn’t a medical term and there isn’t an official explanation for the cause of such strong side-effects to menstruating, it’s thought to be down to hormone fluctuations. It’s not an actual illness (though for me it definitely feels like one) but a reaction to the process of menstruation – the shedding of your uterine lining triggers an immune response that basically mirrors your body’s reaction to the actual flu, while the drop in progesterone levels during the latter half of a cycle is another possible explanation for those flu-like symptoms.
Symptoms can vary from person to person and cycle to cycle – last month I had the full shebang, this month I got away with a nasty headache, sweats and some lower back pain. My symptoms generally kick in a day or two before my period, but for others, they could occur up to two weeks before or after ovulation, when estrogen levels fall and progesterone levels rise. Symptoms include nausea, diarrhea or constipation, dizziness, vomiting, fatigue, headaches, cramps, bloating, backache, abdominal pain or pressure, breakouts, muscle or joint pain and disrupted sleep. According to WebMD, if symptoms are serious enough they “may affect your quality of life.”
For me, this is absolutely true. When I got back into bed on that Saturday morning, I was too tired, too ill to feel even an ounce of the usual mum guilt about bowing out of parenting that day. I just couldn’t face it. And not just physically either; my emotions were wild and my patience was non-existent. I would have been “shouty mum”, adding a shot of shame into the already toxic emotional cocktail.
I’m lucky in that my experiences of period flu have struck on weekends when my husband has been around to help with the kids, and, because I’m freelance, I don’t have to show up to an office when I’m in the throes of it. Hopefully, in the not-so-distant future, others won’t have to either.
It was revealed last week that Spain will be the first European country to offer three days menstrual leave to anyone suffering from severe period pain. Currently, menstrual leave is only a legal right in a few countries, including Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia and Zambia. Spain’s draft bill proposes that people could be entitled to three days of leave per month with a doctors note, increased to five if the pain is particularly intense or incapacitating. According to the Spanish Gynaecology and Obstetrics Society, approximately one third of women suffer from severe pain. If passed, the legislation could be a game-changer that paves the way for other countries to follow suit.
We can only live in hope for similar provisions in the UK, especially given that previous studies have found 60% to 90% of young women worldwide suffer from dysmenorrhea, or severe period pains. Until then, it’s about finding ways to manage your symptoms. I’m still working that part out, but I always make sure I’m stocked up on painkillers and try to rest as much as I can. A heat pack or hot water bottle is also essential for soothing back pain and stomach cramps, and I try to eat nourishing foods and move my body, even if that’s just a walk or some stretching. I’ve also been keeping track of my symptoms using the Apple Health app. If they persist and period flu continues to floor me each month, I plan to make an appointment with my GP, if only to rule out other conditions with similar symptoms, such as PMDD or IBS. Surely we shouldn’t have to accept that feeling so awful just comes with the territory of being female.