The Science of Hot Flashes
Brandi Koskie | March 02 , 2019
Why they really happen and what to do about them.
After a near-lifetime of periods, the idea of menopause can seem like a hard-earned reward for all that being a woman has put us through. But then when it really comes, it's like one more female joyride we can’t get off of: Hot flashes are real and, for a lot of us, aren’t going away anytime soon.
Anyone who’s had one knows hot flashes are the strongest physical symptom of menopause, when menstruation comes to a blessed end but estrogen sources start depleting. Starting at the point of perimenopause, these sudden surges of heat rise from your core, with no invitation or warning. They feel all-consuming and inescapable, and more than half of all women experience them.
Hot flashes generally target the chest, neck, and face, leaving the skin flush and the body damp with sweat. So if all of this is happening to you, it’s totally normal. (It’s also normal to feel like it’s too hot to breathe, function, or focus.)
We're Not The Only Ones Flashing
Guess what – men can get hot flashes, too. Especially as a side-effect of androgen deprivation therapy during treatment for prostate cancer. But according to Dr. Jonathon Daniels of Rocky Mountain Women’s Health, hot flashes outside of menopause can also be caused by:
- Hyperthyroidism or thyroid cancer
- Diet heavy in caffeine, spicy food, or alcohol
- Some medication side effects
- Hormone treatment for fertility/IVF
- Stress or an adrenaline rush
- Pancreatic tumors
So, Uh, How Long Will This Go On For?
Menopausal hot flash episodes can last 30 seconds or as long as 10 minutes, with the average being 3-5 minutes. In one study, 87 percent of women had daily hot flashes, while one-third experienced a brutal 10 or more each day.
The start date of a woman’s hot flashes has a direct relationship with how many years she’ll experience them. Basically, the earlier they start, the longer they’ll last. The median was 4.5 years after the final menstruation, according to SWAN, an extensive study on the duration and persistence of hot flashes. Here's what else they found:
- If the first hot flash occurs before menstruation has ended, hot flashes will last 9 to 10 years.
- If the first hot flash occurs after menstruation has ended, hot flashes last only 3.5 years.
- Black women experience them the longest, at 10+ years, while Asian women have the shortest-lived hot flash season.
- Hot flashes are most common in white women.
The SWAN study encouraged women to seek support from their doctor if, at any point, the hot flashes are too bothersome. No one should feel like it’s something they have to go through. While medical treatments are available, typically by way of estrogen/hormone replacement therapy, there can be a risk of breast cancer worth discussing with your doctor. Other medical treatments include the use of antidepressants, nerve pain drug gabapentin, and high blood pressure medication.
As for non-medical treatment, there are things you can do on your own to reduce the effects, duration, and occurrence of hot flashes:
- Always keep a bottle of ice cold water with you and drink throughout the day
- Reduce alcohol, spicy food, and caffeine
- Reduce or quit smoking
- Maintain a healthy weight; symptoms are worse for those who are obese or overweight
- Commit to a mind-body practice like meditation, yoga, or relaxation breathing
If You're at Home
- Keep the house and/or bedroom cool
- Drink cold water before bed
- Keep a fan by the bed
- Keep a bottle of Hot Flash Cooling Mist by your bed for night sweats
- Wear loose fitting, breathable pajamas
If You're at Work or in Public
- Keep the Hot Flash Cooling Mist in your purse for instant cooling, calming relief you can use as often as you like
- Dress in layers, wear loose-fitting clothes
- Keep a fan on your desk or in the office
- Buy a portable fan that plugs into your smartphone (what a time to be alive!)
- Pack cold lunches like salads, sandwiches, or chilled pasta
- Reorganize your schedule to reduce times when you might be rushed, easing stress that causes hot flashes