Hot flashes and menopause. They go together like…liver and onions. Mention one, and the other is not far behind. Both are sure to get the attention of women in their 40s and 50s. Hot flashes are the symptom most associated with menopause, though not all women get them. They can start before menopause and sometimes last long afterward. According to the American Menopause Society, some women may experience hot flashes into their 70s and beyond.
What's a Hot Flash?
A hot flash, or hot flush, is the sudden onset of heat, usually in the upper part of the body. According to the Mayo Clinic, a hot flash is "a feeling of mild warmth to intense heat spreading through your upper body and face." Some women also experience palpitations (rapid heartbeat) and blotchy skin. Most will break out in a sweat, then be chilled as the hot flash subsides. Hot flashes can occur before (pre), during (peri) and after (post) menopause.
As a woman nears the end of her childbearing years, estrogen and progesterone hormone levels start to fluctuate. The drop in these "sex hormone" levels is thought to affect neurotransmitters in the hypothalamus, which happens to regulate body temperature. In response to intermittent increased blood flow (heat) in the hypothalamus, blood vessels in the skin dilate to release heat, causing flushing and perspiration. For some women, these hormonal fluctuations can last well after hormone levels indicate the end of menopause.
Keep in mind that hot flashes can also be caused by non-menopausal conditions and are not limited to women. Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid), some cancers, tumors and hypertension (high blood pressure) can all cause hot flashes. In men, low testosterone (also a sex hormone, like estrogen and progesterone) can cause hot flashes. Of course, these conditions must be diagnosed by a doctor.
Hot flashes are not always caused by changing bodies or medical conditions, and so may also occur after menopause. Often, plain old stress is enough to trigger a hot flash. We've probably all experienced the sensation of breaking out in a sweat when eating very spicy foods--capsaicin (what makes chili peppers hot) is the culprit here. Alcohol, food additives, being too warm under the blankets or the heat generated from a laptop computer in your lap for a long period of time are common causes of hot flashes.
When to See a Doctor
If you are concerned because your hot flashes are occurring after menopause (or long before), and you cannot attribute them to menopause or other outside factors, your best course of action is to seek medical advice. With an exam and testing, your doctor will be able to rule out certain conditions, check for other possibilities and prescribe treatment.