These Are The Signs That You're Having A Hot Flash

Menopause is often treated like a dirty word by society, its symptoms hidden away like shameful signs of an aging body. It is no surprise, then, that most women have no idea what to expect when approaching this unavoidable hormonal milestone. For instance, many have never even heard of the phase leading up to menopause, which is when symptoms are actually at their peak. It's called perimenopause, and it can last for up to 10 years. The average age for the onset of menopause (the ceasing of the menstrual cycle for at least one year) is around 50, according to the Mayo Clinic. This puts the average age of perimenopausal onset at approximately 40.

Since perimenopause is discussed even less than menopause is, most women are blindsided by its symptoms. Medical News Today attributes over 30 symptoms to perimenopausal hormonal changes. The most common include mood swings, headaches, low libido, fatigue, joint pain, food intolerances, weight gain, dizziness, anxiety, depression, and hot flashes. However, the hot flash and its nighttime twin, the night sweat, are the main symptoms associated with menopause. Here's why they happen and how to identify them.

Biology and symptoms of hot flashes

WebMD classifies a hot flash as a vasomotor symptom (VMS) of perimenopause and menopause. A VMS is a disruption of the production of hormones — particularly estrogen — which results in dysfunctional body temperature. It is the most common symptom of perimenopause and Johns Hopkins Medicine reports that up to 80% of women will experience them as they approach the end of their menstruating years.

The first sign of a hot flash is usually a sudden feeling of intense warmth in the upper body. Specifically, the face, neck, and chest are typically the most affected. Skin redness, known as flushing, will commonly spread across those areas. Many women will also experience an increase in heart rate, which can mimic an anxiety attack, dizziness with or without nausea, and excessive sweating. After the feeling of heat subsides, the body often overcompensates by dilating blood vessels and dropping your internal temperature. As a result, you can go from overheating to experiencing chills in a matter of minutes.

A nighttime hot flash is called a night sweat. Many women sleep through the overheating portion of the episode and wake up during the night freezing and drenched in sweat. Since perimenopause and menopause symptoms can occur for so many years, experiencing night sweats regularly can cause serious sleep disruptions. In fact, the Sleep Foundation reports that nearly half of perimenopausal and up to 60% of postmenopausal women develop sleeping disorders such as chronic insomnia as a result of their symptoms. 

Identification, treatment, and prevention

Even though the signs of a hot flash sound obvious, they're frequently confused for other issues. If you've recently turned 40 and begun experiencing anxiety attacks, insomnia, or dizzy spells, reassess your symptoms. When you have what you've identified as an anxiety attack, does your face become hot and flushed? When you wake up during a bout of insomnia, are you damp with sweat? Viewing your new symptoms through the lens of potential perimenopause might be the explanation you've been seeking. Don't hesitate to bring this information to your doctor. There are prescription hormone therapy treatments available. These medications contain either estrogen alone or a mixture of estrogen and progesterone. Unfortunately, they are associated with an increased risk of breast cancer, blood clots, and heart disease, as reported by Medline Plus

Because of these risks, many women opt for natural alternatives and lifestyle changes. Alcohol, caffeine, smoking, sugar, spicy foods, hot beverages, and stress can all trigger hot flashes. Avoiding these triggers can help. There are also natural plant sources of phytoestrogen, which can mimic estrogen produced by the human body. The most available source of phytoestrogen is soy. Adding soy to your diet can ease perimenopausal symptoms. Finally, there are herbal supplements. Black cohosh is the most popular herb for hot flashes. Though experts like Dr. Yufang Yin of the Cleveland Clinic question whether the herb is really capable of combating hot flashes, many women across the globe (and on Reddit) insist that the treatment works.