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What are Hot Flashes?

Having cold washcloths on hand can help alleviate some of the discomfort of hot flashes.
Hot flashes are a classic symptom of menopause.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 15 August 2014
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Hot flashes are sudden feelings of warmth, with an increase in body temperature that makes the sufferer extremely uncomfortable. They are most common in women who are going through menopause, although they can affect others. It’s not uncommon for women to sweat so much during one that their clothing gets soaked through in a matter of minutes.

The human body has a built in temperature control system that is regulated by the hypothalamus, a small gland near the brain stem, which acts as a conduit between the thalamus and the pituitary gland. The hypothalamus helps to regulate temperature with a number of hormonal “messengers.” For women, one of these messengers is the hormone estrogen, which begins to decrease in supply a few years before menopause begins. This reduction in supply can temporarily confuse the hypothalamus, causing a significant rise in body temperature and very uncomfortable hot flashes.

A hot flash is only one of the symptoms associated with this underlying cause. It does cause sudden increase in body temperature, but it is really the hypothalamus' response to the sudden confusion that makes people so uncomfortable. The body can be said to go into hyperdrive to get rid of what it perceives as excess heat, which means that the heart rate increases and profuse sweating occurs.

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This response may be somewhat comparable to panic attacks. The rapid heartbeat can certainly induce panic, and it may also cause extreme headaches, nausea and dizziness. A woman’s first one can be frightening, especially since it usually occurs before menopause begins and isn’t expected. There are several differences between a hot flash and a panic attack, however. First, breathing may increase slightly, but there is not the hyperventilation typical with panic attacks. Second, panic attacks rarely cause flushing on the face, or such profuse sweating.

It's important to stay calm during a hot flash, since increased respiration can only add to the temporary chaos in the body, and panic may actually make the experience last longer. As a person experiences more of them, and about 85% of women do during the few years before and after menopause, she should remember that she's not alone.

As a person gets used to the feeling, she may note certain things that trigger them. These can be quite different for each person, although a few groups tend to get more of them than others. Smokers tend to get them with greater regularity than do nonsmokers. Stress, consuming alcohol, caffeine or spicy foods, sitting in hot tubs, being in warm rooms, or walking around in hot weather may all also be potential triggers.

Some women can tell a hot flash is on its way by sudden chills, or just an indefinable feeling called an “aura” that one will occur. Women who get them frequently may want to chart what they were doing before one occurred. They might detect patterns between behavior or conditions and the flashes, and as a result, be able to reduce them.

Most women do note that these flashes diminish a few years after menopause begins. In the interim, wearing cotton clothing, using air conditioning, and having some cold washcloths on hand to get through the experience is a good idea. Medications like estrogen replacement therapy have in the past been used to help reduce hot flashes, but these are now used less often because they may increase the risk for cancer. Some women find taking estrogen for a few months when menopause begins is helpful in countering the worst of this symptom.

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Discuss this Article

anon162984
Post 6

My hot flashes began about nine years ago and I have been reading and researching about them ever since. It is interesting that most of the articles I read state that they generally abate or disappear in a few years (two to four are the most often stated numbers). However, in my own experience and the experience of the majority of women I have talked to, that is rarely the case.

I don't think I have ever talked to a woman who said she only had them for two years (this does not include those on HRT). I would put the average number of years closer to ten, with the caveat that the flashes wax and wane within this period, both in terms of frequency and intensity, and certainly subject to things such as levels of exercise, healthy diet and stress levels.

It has been my experience that flashes can disappear for a few months at a time and then return with some ferocity. I don't know where the "only a few years" adage came from, but I feel compelled to challenge it. I would like to get a better handle on this time frame thing and would welcome posts from others regarding their experiences in this vein.

anon90194
Post 5

I think a lot of people underestimate the discomfort of hot flashes. I have been going through menopause for nine years now and only cope with HRT. If i stop taking HRT then i will wake regularly through out the night: first with some arousal to wake me, then gradually get hotter and hotter with profuse sweating. Waking six or eight times a night eventually drives you batty. How long is someone supposed to go through this?

Other remedies don't work for me and I still get flushes with HRT but not all the time. I am nearly 58 now and have read of someone still going through menopause at 70. I don't know if that is true or possible but i think it is enough to make you suicidal.

anon88493
Post 4

I know a woman who, before her first hot flash, could never understand how I feel hot all the time. That first hot flash taught her the lesson of how people overdo heat in winter! I'm a man who would be great as a Russian, Finn or the like. I found out in life that making heat is easy, just burn wood. But, to make cold is a lot harder. Thank Willis Carrier for inventing A/C!

anon40683
Post 3

Can a hot flash make you feel like you are going to pass out?

anon36855
Post 2

Are hot flashes always bound to menopause?

anon22974
Post 1

I turned 45 in August of this year and have notice a month or two afterward while sitting at my desk at work one morning, I started feeling from my neck, my head, and ears, in a slow then intensifying of heat; as if I had a built in radiator or furnace. Then I noticed it would happen about once in a couple of weeks. It was the most unusual and uncomfortable feeling. I would try to stay calm, but it was very scary. I made an appointment with my PCP and she suggested Primrose and Black Cohash. I bought the Primrose and I also started taking Omega 3 Fish oil capsules and have noticed a significant change. No more feeling as if a radiator is in my body. I take a lot of baths and that helps with the itchy feeling of my skin that I was dealing with as well. I drink plenty of water, which helps a lot.

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