You’re doing your thing, minding your own business, and all of a sudden, it feels like someone injected your skin with whatever comes in those little hand-warming gel packets.
Hot flashes are sudden feelings of warmth or intense heat that you usually experience around your face, neck, and chest. They’re not exactly fun to deal with, since they can cause deep breathing, an elevated heart rate, flushed skin, and—when they pass—a sweat-stained shirt and a case of the chills.
While it’s true that hot flashes are usually associated with menopause and perimenopause, women (and men) of any age can experience them, says Beth Battaglino, RN, CEO and women’s health expert with the nonprofit HealthyWomen. “Hot flashes can strike at any time and for a lot of different reasons,” she explains.
But it’s important to note that experiencing one doesn’t necessarily mean anything scary is going on, says Alexandra Sowa, MD, founder of SoWell Health, a private practice focused on disease prevention through nutrition, fitness, and medicine. “It’s not clear why some people experience them and some don’t, but for many it’s a benign or transient condition,” she explains.
If you feel like you’re having hot flashes on a consistent basis, Dr. Sowa recommends jotting down some notes in your phone or on a pad of paper every time you experience one. “Write down the time of day and what you were doing before they started,” Dr. Sowa suggests.
“Keeping that kind of diary may help you make associations or identify your triggers—things such as red wine or stress,” adds Lynn Simpson, MD, a gynecologist at Cleveland Clinic. This information could also help your doctor figure out the underlying cause of your hot flashes, she says.
There are a number of reasons you could be experiencing hot flashes. Here are the most common triggers—and what to do about them.
It’s no secret that menopause is the most common cause of hot flashes. During menopause, your ovaries stop releasing eggs and your levels of estrogen and progesterone decrease. “It is this decrease in hormones that are thought to be the reason behind hot flashes,” says women’s health expert Jennifer Wider, MD.
✔️Cool off: If your symptoms are severe, your doctor might suggest hormone replacement therapy (HRT)—a medication that typically comes in the form of pills, skin patches, creams and gels, or a vaginal ring—to help balance out your hormone levels and relieve hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms, like night sweats. However, there are certain risks to undergoing HRT, such as an increased of breast cancer and heart issues, so be sure to discuss all of your options with your OB/GYN before you commit to a treatment.
2. Prescription medications
Hot flashes are a side effect of many common prescription drugs, such as opioids, antidepressants, and some osteoporosis drugs, Dr. Simpson says. Certain steroids that are used to treat swelling can also trigger hot flashes.
Battaglino recommends looking for symptoms soon after starting a new course of medication. “If they coincide, you’ll know that’s probably the cause,” she says.
✔️Cool off: Let your health care provider know what’s up. He or she may be able to switch you to a similar drug that doesn’t leave you hot under the collar. “It may also be that the hot flashes will go away as your body gets acclimated to the medication, so your provider can reassure you the discomfort won’t last long,” Battaglino adds.
3. A hot bedroom
Your body temperature naturally fluctuates throughout the night, Dr. Simpson says. So it’s common for women (and men) to wake up in the middle of the night feeling overheated or sweaty.
✔️Cool off: “It may be as simple a fix as turning down the thermostat or sleeping with fewer blankets or clothes,” Dr. Simpson says. The National Sleep Foundation recommends keeping your bedroom temperature between 60 and 67 degrees for an optimal snooze. You can also try these cooling sheets, cooling pillows, and lightweight comforters to prevent night sweats.
4. Excess weight
Because excess weight can mess with your metabolism, it can also promote hot flashes, Battaglino says. And while weight alone can be a factor, the stage you are in your life may also matter. “Newer studies have shown that hot flashes may be more common in women who gain weight during menopause,” Dr. Wider says.
✔️Cool off: It’s a predictable remedy, but eating nutrient-rich foods and exercising more frequently can bring relief, especially if you’re overweight or obese, according to a 2010 study from the University of California, San Francisco. Compared with overweight and obese women who did not attempt to lose weight, those who ate a healthier diet and exercised 200 minutes per week were twice as likely to report fewer hot flashes.
5. Food allergies or sensitivities
Almost all of us experience something like a hot flash when we eat very spicy foods, but alcohol, caffeine, and additives like sulfites are also some common triggers. “It is thought that spicy foods that give food some heat and alcohol are vasodilators and expand your blood vessels,” Dr. Wider explains. But if you have an unidentified food allergy or intolerance, something else in your diet could be the cause, Battaglino explains.
✔️Cool off: Pay attention to how your body reacts the next time you ingest any of the foods above (or triggers you’re suspicious about) and you may find a correlation. If that doesn’t help, consider speaking with your doctor or a registered dietitian about a structured elimination diet.
While stress and anxiety are often used interchangeably, mental health experts tend to use the term “anxiety” to refer to the physical side of emotions like stress, fear, or worry. Anxiety disorders can cause a variety of symptoms like a racing heart, nervous fidgeting, heavy breathing, and hot flashes, Battaglino says.
That’s becaues hot flashes start in your brain, which is also where you experience stress and anxiety. “Whatever mitigates anxiety in the brain triggers hot flashes, but we don’t know the exact mechanism,” says Yvonne Bohn, MD, an ob/gyn at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif. But it’s important that if you already tend to struggle with hot flashes, suffering from stress and anxiety can make them even worse, Dr. Wider says.
✔️Cool off: “Reminding yourself to breathe is a simple exercise that can help calm anxiety,” Battaglino explains. Natural anxiety remedies like exercise, meditation, and yoga can also help you relax. But if you still don’t find the relief you’re looking for, you may be suffering from a more serious form of anxiety and should consider speaking with a doctor or cognitive behavioral therapist about a treatment plan.
7. Medical conditions
Almost any medical problem related to your hormones or endocrine system could lead to menopause-like symptoms, including hot flashes. In particular, thyroid issues—especially an overactive thyroid—could explain your bouts of feeling warm, Battaglino says. Infections or viruses can also cause them, Dr. Sowa explains.
If the problem is your thyroid, you’ll likely experience other symptoms besides hot flashes. A racing heart, unexplained weight loss, lots of trips to the bathroom, and feeling extreme fatigue at certain times of the day are all symptoms associated with an overactive thyroid.
When it comes to other health issues—including infections—look for an elevated temp and symptoms like diarrhea or bowel discomfort, Dr. Sowa says.
✔️Cool off: If you’re experiencing any symptoms that seem unusual along with your hot flashes, talk to your doc about getting a diagnosis and treatment plan.
8. Breast cancer treatment
Hot flashes and night sweats can also be a side effect of breast cancer treatment, the National Cancer Institute reports. Oftentimes, radiation and chemotherapy can cause premature menopause in young women, and older women can go into menopause as a result of chemo.
“It has to do with hormone levels,” says Dr. Wider. If a woman takes the estrogen-modulating drug tamoxifen, for example, it can cause her estrogen levels to drop and trigger hot flashes. Certain procedures, like an oophorectomy (which a surgery to remove one or both ovaries), can also cause low estrogen levels and hot flashes, Dr. Wider says.
✔️Cool off: To help manage your symptoms, limit your consumption of spicy foods and hot drinks, avoid hot showers, saunas, and triggers like stress and alcohol. Take a cool shower before going to bed and lower the temperature in your bedroom. Sleep in clothing and bedding made of natural materials like cotton, linen, and silk.
How to prevent hot flashes from taking over your life
If you find that you’re regularly struggling with hot flashes, it’s important to check in with a doctor to try to figure out what’s going on. If lack of estrogen is the cause, your doctor will likely prescribe something to help increase the levels of the hormone in your body, like an estrogen supplement or antidepressant, Dr. Bohn says.
Other than that, you can try your best to wear light, loose clothes to bed, keep your house cool, and drink plenty of water, Dr. Wider says.
There’s only so much you can do to stop hot flashes altogether, but taking these steps should help limit how much you experience—and how severe they end up being.
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