Hot flashes are caused by hormonal changes in the body that occur when a woman is going through menopause. Pregnant women have also been treated for the same condition. Uncomfortable feelings of anxiety, suffocation, weakness and throbbing headaches can accompany the hot flash. The hot flash can be a mild beading of perspiration on the upper lip, or a “soaker” which leaves a woman drenched with sweat.
The hypothalamus, which is the part of the brain that controls body temperature, appetite, sleep cycles and sexual hormones can become confused when there is a drop in estrogen levels and it can read that the body is too hot. The hypothalamus sends an All Points Bulletin throughout the body to get rid of the heat immediately. The heart rate goes up, blood vessels dilate and sweat grands release perspiration to bring the body temperature down as quickly as possible. During a hot flash, a woman’s temperature can rise as much as six degrees. The body temperature can drop just as quickly after the body has reacted to the emergency leaving the woman shaken, miserable, and embarrassed.
The hot flash can be preceded by a cold flash. Some women report seeing an aura just before the hot flash occurs. Women who have recently started hormonal therapy may experience hot flashes until their body adjusts to the medication. Hot flashes can last anywhere from a few seconds to an hour, and it usually takes at least 1/2 hour before the woman begins to feel like herself again.
Women who have been treated for breast cancer often experience intense hot flashes that can last much longer then the average time experienced by menopausal women. For some women, the discomfort is so intense they seek medical help. More than 85% of American women have experienced hot flashes at some point in their lives. Initial onset is usually within the first year or two after a woman’s periods stop. Approximately 20% to 50% of women will have hot flashes for several years. Usually, as the woman ages, the intensity decreases.
Tamoxifen is often prescribed for women who have been treated for breast cancer to reduce the chances of a recurrence of the cancer. Tamoxifen also can block hot flashes, and seems to act as an estrogen replacement. Patients who have been taking Tamoxifen should be aware that once the therapy ceases, the hot flashes will return.
It is important to remember that there is no standard hot flash. They manifest differently for each person depending on her physical condition and circumstance. Although hot flashes can be embarrassing, medicine is available to lessen the symptoms so that they are not noticeable. Women can find solace in the fact that the intensity decreases over time until finally the symptoms vanish.