When people hear "hot flash," they generally think of menopause. This is the time in a woman's life when her period stops. While women typically experience menopause in the 40s or 50s, a large number of women can experience hot flashes not only during menopause but well into their 60s, 70s, and even 80s.
If you are 60 years of age or older and still experiencing the vasomotor symptoms (VMS) typically associated with menopause like hot flashes and night sweats, it can help to talk to your doctor. They can help you find a treatment plan to provide you relief and improve your quality of life.
What Is a Hot Flash?
Intense warmth. A hot flash occurs when there is a sudden feeling of warmth around your body. It is typically most intense on your chest, face, and neck. Many people find that their skin becomes pink or red, almost like they're blushing.
Because of the intense warmth, your hot flash may also cause you to sweat. If you sweat a lot, this could cause you to lose too much body heat. You might experience chills after the hot flash is over.
Other medical conditions can cause hot flashes but they are most commonly due to menopause. You may continue to experience them even after menopause has ended.
Symptoms of Hot Flashes
During hot flashes, you may experience:
- A sudden feeling of warmth spreading through your face, neck, and chest
- A flushed appearance with blotchy and red skin
- Rapid heartbeat
- Sweating, typically on your upper body
- A chilled feeling as hot flashes ease up
Different reactions. The intensity and frequency of hot flashes vary among women. Your hot flashes may be so intense that they disrupt your daily activities, or they may be mild. Hot flashes can happen at any time of night or day. Nighttime hot flashes, also known as night sweats, can wake you from sleep and can cause long-term sleep disturbances.
Each woman's experience with hot flashes is unique, but most women experience hot flashes every day. Hot flash symptoms persist for more than seven years, on average. Some women experience them for more than 10 years.
Causes of Hot Flashes
Hormone levels. Hot flashes are commonly caused by changing hormone levels before, during, and after menopause. However, it's not clear exactly how hormonal changes cause hot flashes. Studies are beginning to show that vasomotor symptoms may be the results of dropping estrogen levels and changes that occur in an area of the brain that is in charge of controlling your body temperture. Hot flashes usually occur when decreased estrogen levels affect your body's thermostat. The latter becomes more sensitive to subtle changes in body temperature.
Sometimes, hot flashes and night sweats are caused by something other than menopause. These potential causes include:
- Cancer treatment side effects
- Certain cancers
- Medication side effects
- Thyroid problems
Risk Factors for Hot Flashes
Not all women who go through menopause experience hot flashes. It's not clear why some women do have them. Factors that may increase your risk of experiencing hot flashes include:
- Obesity. Overweight women often experience more hot flashes.
- Smoking. Women who smoke are more likely to experience hot flashes.
- Race. More Black women report having hot flashes during menopause than women of other races, although the reason why is unclear.
Tips for Managing Hot Flashes
There are a few different treatments you can try to reduce the severity and frequency of hot flashes:
Lifestyle changes. Dress in layers that you can remove if you feel a hot flash coming on. It can also help to carry a portable fan to help you cool down.
Avoid certain foods and drinks. Things like alcohol, spicy foods, and caffeine can make hot flashes worse.
Stop smoking. If you smoke, it can help to quit. It will reduce your hot flashes and help you stay healthy overall.
Healthy weight. Keep exercising and try to stay fit. Women who are overweight tend to have more frequent and more severe hot flashes.
Mind-body practices. Self-calming techniques like mindfulness, meditation, and yoga can help improve menopausal symptoms like hot flashes.
Treatment Options for Hot Flashes
Non-hormone options. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the use of paroxetine. This is a low-dose antidepressant that uses a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) to treat hot flashes.
Women who use an antidepressant to help manage hot flashes generally take a lower dose than people who use the medication to treat depression. Side effects depend on the type of antidepressant you take. They can include:
Hormone therapy. Hormone therapy steadies the levels of estrogen. Estrogen is a hormone that helps develop and maintain both your reproductive system and female characteristics. Hormone therapy can also maintain progesterone, a hormone released by your ovaries. It is a very effective treatment for hot flashes in women who can use it.
Before trying hormones, keep in mind that they may increase your chance of having a stroke, heart attack, or breast cancer. Hormones are typically administered at the lowest dose and for the shortest possible period of time.
Deciding whether and how to treat the symptoms of hot flashes can be complicated and personal. Discuss your symptoms, medical history, and preferences with your doctor.