Understanding Hot Flashes

Hot flashes is the sudden rush of heat from a woman’s chest to her head. Hot flashes range from a mild warm feeling to intense heat.

Hot flashes that occur at night when a woman is asleep are called night sweats. Hot flashes are often accompanied by heavy sweating, reddening of the neck and chest or even the whole body, rapid heartbeat, and a chilled feeling once the hot flash has passed.

Hot flashes come in sudden bursts that can last from a few seconds to several minutes. There is no telling when hot flashes will occur. Some women experience hot flashes a number of times in an hour, while some experience them as seldom as once or twice a day.

Causes of hot flashes

Hot flashes are caused by changes in the way blood vessels contract and release. They are the most common symptom of menopause. Menopause is a normal bodily reaction to the decreasing estrogen levels. About 85% of menopausal women experiences hot flashes.

Biological reasons for hot flashes are yet to be fully understood, but most experts believe it may be caused by fluctuating levels of other hormones other than estrogen. These hormones may affect the part of the brain that controls body temperature.

Other causes of hot flashes include: hot weather, spicy foods, alcohol, caffeine, stress and infertility medications.

Early menopause

Procedures such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy to the pelvic area can cause early menopause, which in turn, causes intense hot flashes. Endometrial or breast cancer treatments such as estrogen blockers may also cause similar symptoms.

How to treat hot flash?

To help physicians determine if a woman’s hot flashes are caused by menopause, he/she performs a physical examination and compiles a medical history of the patient. Physicians may also subject a patient to a battery of tests to find out if the patient is indeed going through menopause. Hormones such as FSH and LH can be measured through a blood test.

A common treatment for hot flashes is hormone replacement therapy. This means taking synthetic estrogen or a combination of estrogen and progesterone.

Aside from hormone replacement treatments, women may also take low-dose oral contraceptives to manage their hot flashes. This, however, is only recommended for women who do not smoke. Smokers, and those who have a history or blood clots or breast cancer are not advised to take contraceptives, and should consult their physician.

Alernative medications may also be taken to treat hot flashes. These include short term, low dose estrogen, some antidepressants, blood pressure medications and anticonvulsants. However, some studies showed that non-estrogen medications such as antidepressants, blood pressure drugs and anticonvulsants are not very effective in treating hot flashes and often have side affects which include nausea, drowsiness, sexual dysfunction, walking imbalance, leg swelling, dry mouth and constipation.

Aside from medications, herbal or dietary supplements may also be taken to alleviate hot flashes. These include cohosh and soy products. However, research has found cohosh to be ineffective in  relieving hot flashes in postmenopausal women and those about to go through menopause.

Other forms of alternative treatments such as acupuncture and massage therapy may help relieve hot flashes due to the relaxation they provide. However, these treatments should also be discussed with a doctor.