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.
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.