Hot flashes are sudden feelings of warmth, which are usually most intense over the face, neck and chest. Your skin may redden, just as if you were blushing. Hot flashes can also cause profuse sweating and may leave you chilled.
Although other hormonal conditions can cause them, hot flashes most commonly are due to menopause — the time of life when a woman's menstrual periods stop.
Depending on the person, hot flashes may occur a few times a week or several times a day. Hot flashes that occur at night can interrupt your sleep. If your hot flashes become particularly bothersome, a variety of treatments are available.
When you're having a hot flash, you may experience:
Hot flashes vary in frequency — you may have many in one day or just a few each week. Each hot flash usually subsides in just a few minutes. Most women who experience hot flashes will have them for at least a year.
When to see a doctor
The exact cause of hot flashes isn't known, but the signs and symptoms point to factors affecting the function of your body's thermostat — the hypothalamus. This area at the base of your brain regulates body temperature and other basic processes. The estrogen reduction you experience during menopause may disrupt hypothalamic function, leading to hot flashes.
Low estrogen alone doesn't often seem to induce hot flashes, as children and women with low levels of estrogen due to medical conditions usually don't experience hot flashes. Instead, the withdrawal of estrogen, which happens during menopause, appears to be the trigger.
Not all women who go through menopause experience hot flashes. Although it's not clear why some women get hot flashes and others don't, the following factors increase your risk of hot flashes:
Sleep problems are often a complication of hot flashes. Nighttime hot flashes (night sweats) can wake you from sleep and, over time, may cause chronic insomnia. These sleep disturbances can, in turn, eventually lead to memory problems, anxiety and depression in some women.
Preparing for your appointment
You may initially seek advice about your hot flashes from your family doctor or gynecologist.
What you can do
A list of questions to ask your doctor may also be useful:
What to expect from your doctor
Tests and diagnosis
Your doctor can usually diagnose hot flashes based on a description of the symptoms you're experiencing. To confirm the cause of your hot flashes, your doctor may suggest blood tests to check whether you are approaching menopause and if your thyroid gland is working properly. Hot flashes can also be caused by an overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism).
Treatments and drugs
The most effective treatment for hot flashes is estrogen, but taking this hormone can increase your risk of developing other health problems in the future. Medications such as antidepressants and anti-seizure drugs also may help reduce hot flashes. Discuss the pros and cons of various treatment plans with your doctor. If hot flashes don't interfere with your life, you may need no treatment at all. For most women, hot flashes fade gradually within a few years.
Before starting estrogen therapy for menopause symptoms, review your heart-disease risk factors with your doctor, and weigh the benefits of symptom relief against the risk — remote but recognized — of developing heart disease as a result. Estrogen therapy is not a good option if you've ever had a blood clot or breast cancer.
As an alternative for women who can't take estrogen, some doctors prescribe progesterone alone to help control hot flashes.
However, these medications aren't as effective as hormone therapy for severe hot flashes and may cause side effects, such as nausea, dizziness, weight gain or sexual dysfunction. But they can be very helpful in women who cannot use estrogen or progesterone for relief of hot flashes.
Other prescription medications
Lifestyle and home remedies
If your hot flashes are mild, you may be able to manage them with lifestyle adjustment alone. Follow these tips:
Many women have turned to a variety of dietary supplements to help curb hot flashes, sometimes with the mistaken belief that "natural" products can cause no harm. All supplements have potentially harmful side effects, and supplements can also interact with medications you're taking for other medical conditions. Always review what you're taking with your doctor.
Dietary supplements commonly used for menopause symptoms include:
Last Updated: 2011-06-11
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