When You Get A Hot Flash, Here's What's Really Happening

Menopause has many unpleasant symptoms, and hot flashes are among the worst. The creeping feeling of your body heating up is disconcerting, and can make even the most modest woman start to shed layers.

If you've never experienced one, a hot flash is a feeling of warmth that spreads through the upper body. It can involve skin reddening and sweating, according to the Mayo Clinic, and may be followed by a chill. If you experience one while sleeping, it is usually called "night sweats."

A hot flash can feel somewhat similar to a panic attack. Symptoms include a feeling of warmth throughout the torso, face, neck, and arms, skin flushing, elevated heart rate, sweating, and anxiety. Generally, they last less than 10 minutes and average about four minutes, according to Healthline.

Fluctuations in hormones are what bring on hot flashes, according to the Mayo Clinic. Though it's not fully understood, it's thought that low estrogen levels increase sensitivity in a portion of the brain known as the hypothalamus. This region is responsible for regulating temperature and maintaining balance in the body. If the hypothalamus thinks you're getting too warm, a hot flash may be its way of bringing on sweating to cool the body down.

Who gets hot flashes?

Most hot flashes are experienced by women going through menopause, though they can also be caused by medications, thyroid problems, or cancer treatments. According to the National Institute on Aging, women of African American or Hispanic descent tend to experience more years of hot flashes than other women.

Triggers for hot flashes can include alcohol, caffeine, spicy foods, stress or anxiety, tight clothing, smoking, bending over, and being in an overheated space, according to Healthline. Early treatment is to avoid triggers and see if this reduces the severity of hot flashes. If they are still unbearable after lifestyle changes, there are options like hormone replacement therapy or medications which may help.

While some people might recommend alternative treatments like DHEA or black cohosh to treat hot flashes, the National Institute on Aging recommends against them. They have not been scientifically proven and can carry serious risks, including liver damage. If hot flashes are unbearable, the NIA recommends consulting with a doctor to rule out causes other than menopause, and find the best course of action.