Imagine you’re sitting at home, reading a book and minding your own business, when all of a sudden a feeling of intense heat comes out of nowhere and radiates throughout your body.
When it’s all over, you’re left with your heart beating out of its chest, you’re dripping in sweat from head to toe, and your face and neck feel red, hot and blotchy looking.
Ladies, you’ve just had a hot flash.
A hot flash typically starts in the face or the chest, although it can stem from any part of the body. A single hot flash can last anywhere between 30 seconds up to several minutes.
But why does this happen?
Unfortunately doctors are actually unsure why hot flashes occur, but they know it’s caused by your fluctuating hormone levels, especially estrogen and progesterone. The fluctuations in these two hormones impact the functioning of the hypothalamus, which is a part of your brain that controls your body’s temperature.
The drop in estrogen confuses the hypothalamus (your body’s thermostat) making it read ‘too hot’, so the brain responds by alerting your heart, blood vessels and nervous system to control the heat.
The message is transmitted by chemical messengers in the body, and they deliver the message by making your heart pump faster, your blood vessels in your skin to dilate and circulate more blood to radiate off the heat, and your sweat glands to release sweat to cool you off. At the end of a hot flash, you end up bright red and sweaty.
Types of hot flashes
This type of hot flash comes on rapidly, sometimes reaching maximum intensity in as little as 1 minute, and lasts at full intensity for a few minutes before gradually fading.
These are slow hot flashes, also called ember flashes. They appear almost as quickly as your standard hot flashes, but are less intense, and may last for up to half an hour. Women who experience this type may undergo them all year round, rather than primarily in the summer time.
What can trigger a Hot Flash?
Anything that already gets your heart racing, such as caffeine, spicy foods, alcohol and food allergies or sensitivities may set off a hot flash episode. Smokers are also more than twice as likely to experience severe hot flashes than women who have never smoked.
External factors can also cause hot flashes to occur, such as a hot bath or an overheated room, tight clothing, and some medications may have hot flashes as a side effect.
It has also been found that obesity or a high body mass index has been associated with a higher frequency of hot flashes.
Ethnicity and Hot Flashes
Studies have shown that hot flashes are less common in women of Japanese or Chinese descent than in white European women, whereas women of African-American descent have reported more frequent occurrences of hot flashes than European women.
What can you do to?
It is unsure what can be done to stop them from ever occurring. Hot flashes are a symptom of a hormone imbalance, not a medical condition. Hormone Replacement Therapy can help, however, risks have been associated with its use. You should speak to your doctor to ensure it is the right choice for you.
Hot flashes affect each woman differently, so try keeping a journal. Record the frequency and duration of the hot flashes. Note down what you were doing, eating, drinking, feeling and wearing when they began. This will give you an idea of what your potential triggers are likely to be, and will give you a better idea what to reduce or avoid.
In terms of clothing, stick with cotton, and avoid wool, silk and turtlenecks, choose loose thin layers that are easy to remove when you feel a hot flash coming on (such as a cardigan or scarf).
If stress is a trigger (which it can be for a lot of women), try meditation and mindfulness, yoga, and deep breathing techniques. Try 10 minutes of deep breathing in the morning and the evening. Find a quiet room and practice breathing in and out through the nose, inhale slowly to the count of 5 seconds and exhale to the count of 5 seconds.
Try to stay cool; keep your windows open, lower the temperature of your room and drink plenty of water, especially if you feel a hot flash coming on.
Exercise helps with the body’s circulation, and will make the body more adaptable to temperature changes, as well as help to lose fat which will in turn help to reduce the intensity of your menopausal symptoms.
If you are concerned about your hot flashes, please don’t hesitate to go see your doctor. If you see your doctor, let them know any medication you are taking, and provide them as much information you can about your hot flashes (how frequently and how severe they are).
Don’t forget to ask questions, you may want to know if you need to take any tests, if there are other ways to relieve your symptoms, or if they have any brochures or would recommend any websites for you to check out.
The good news is, hot flashes subside gradually for most women, even without treatment.