What Causes Hot Flashes?

How and why your body produces these sensations, especially during menopause

Hot flashes: It sounds like a four-letter word to some women. Most commonly associated with menopause, hot flashes can leave you sweaty and red-faced for no apparent reason. Fanning yourself with a magazine in the middle of winter might leave you wondering, how does this happen? What causes hot flashes is not known, and although they can be brought on by other hormonal conditions such as lifestyle and medications, the most common cause is menopause.

Symptoms of hot flashes

Researchers who study what causes hot flashes in women rely on the symptoms to lead them in the right direction. Knowing what part of your internal body is producing the symptom helps researchers to better understand the cause. The Breast Cancer Organization says symptoms include a feeling of pressure in your head at the start of a hot flash, mildly warm or intense heat spreading through your upper body, a flushed appearance, a rapid heartbeat and perspiration. Less-common symptoms can include fatigue, faintness and dizziness.

How hot flashes work

Although it is not clear how exactly hot flashes work or what causes hot flashes during menopause, research done by Mayo Clinic finds that factors affecting your hypothalamus, your body’s thermostat, cause hot flashes. The hypothalamus is the area of your brain that regulates temperature and works with the estrogen in your body. During menopause estrogen decreases, confusing the hypothalamus and making it think your body is too hot.

The Breast Cancer Organization describes it as your brain responding to this confusion of the hypothalamus by sending very strong messages to the nervous and circulatory systems, telling them to get rid of the heat immediately. This causes your heart to pump faster, then blood vessels in your skin dilate to release the heat and your sweat glands produce sweat to try to cool you off. All of this happens very quickly, resulting in a “flash” of heat sensation.

Who gets hot flashes?

According to the London Health Science Center, about 85 percent of women will get hot flashes in their lifetimes. In addition to women who are simply entering and going through menopause, women who are pregnant, or those who have undergone chemotherapy, radiation or some types of surgery that have permanently ended their menstrual cycle, can experience hot flashes as well.

Until a foolproof method for getting rid of hot flashes is found, Mayo Clinic recommends keeping cool, relaxing and breathing deeply when experiencing a hot flash to reduce the symptoms.

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