Here's What a Hot Flash Actually Feels Like, According to OB/GYNs

Hot flashes are one of the most common symptoms of menopause. According to a scientific paper published in the Journal of Mid-Life Health, more than 80 percent of women experience hot flashes during menopause. The same article says that 55 percent of women get hot flashes during perimenopause, which is when the body begins its transition to menopause.

Knowing what a hot flash feels like can clue you in on if you could be entering perimenopause or menopause. Here, obstetrician-gynecologists explain exactly what’s happening in the body during a hot flash, what one feels like and how to prevent them from interfering with your daily life.

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What Exactly Is a Hot Flash?

As you might suspect, considering that hot flashes are associated with menopause, doctors and researchers believe that the decline in estrogen is one of the main causes of them. “As estrogen levels decline, the part of the brain responsible for regulating body temperature, the hypothalamus, becomes more sensitive to any changes in body temperature,” explains Dr. Somi Javaid, MD, FACOG, the co-founder and chief medical officer at HerMD. She explains that as estrogen levels decline, the hypothalamus sends a message to your body that it is too hot, and consequently, hot flashes results in an effort to "cool" down your body and revert its temperature back to baseline.

Dr. Molly McBride, MD, an OB/GYN at Elite Gynecology in New York City, says that during a hot flash, the blood vessels near the skin’s surface dilate and increase blood flow to the skin, which causes it to feel warm and sweat.

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What Does a Hot Flash Feel Like?

“Hot flashes feel different for each woman, but they are often described as a sudden feeling of heat that spreads through the body, causing sweating and flushing of the face, neck and chest,” Dr. McBride says. She adds that some women also experience a rapid heartbeat, chills or a feeling of anxiety during a hot flash.

Dr. Javaid says that women who experience hot flashes report feeling “hot skin,” a wave of warmth or heat over the upper body, intense heat radiating from the inside of the body out and red, burning, itching skin. “However, hot flashes are so much more than temperature discomfort. In addition to an altered sensation of temperature, women have reported increased anxiety, heart palpitations, insomnia, profuse sweating, headaches and dizziness during a hot flash,” she says.

Both experts say that, typically, a hot flash lasts between one and five minutes, but it’s possible for them to last as long as an hour. Dr. McBride says that some women get hot flashes a few times a week while others may experience them a few times a day. Both experts say that they can occur day or night, but tend to be more common at night. There are also certain risk factors or habits that can make them more likely. Dr. McBride explains that consuming hot liquids, caffeine, spicy foods or alcohol, experiencing high levels of stress, and smoking can all trigger hot flashes and make them more likely to occur.

Typically, women in perimenopause and menopause experience hot flashes for about seven years, according to scientific research. However, Dr. Javaid says that some women are “super flashers,” experiencing hot flashes for up to 20 years.

Related: Your Guide to Perimenopause, That Mysterious Period In-Between Period of Womanhood

How To Deal With Bothersome Hot Flashes and When To See a Doctor

If hot flashes are interfering with activities in daily living or getting in the way of you living your best life, Dr. Javaid highly recommends seeing your healthcare provider or an OB/GYN because there are treatment options available. “A multitude of options are available for the treatment of hot flashes, including both hormonal and non-hormonal therapies and lifestyle and behavior modifications,” she says.

Dr. Javaid says that many women find hormone therapy particularly beneficial. “Hormone therapy is considered the gold standard for treatment of many bothersome menopause symptoms. In the setting of hot flash treatment, estrogen, with or without progesterone, can offer relief from bothersome hot flashes,” she shares. She further explains that the Food and Drug Administration has also approved a non-hormonal selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), paroxetine, for the treatment of moderate to severe vasomotor symptoms, such as hot flashes. “More recently, the FDA-approval of fezolinetant, a non-hormonal NK3 receptor antagonist medication, has shown promise in reducing the severity and frequency of hot flashes,” Dr. Javaid adds.

In terms of lifestyle factors that can help, Dr. Javaid says that avoiding the triggers highlighted earlier (including caffeine, spicy foods and alcohol) can help. She also says that not smoking and managing stress can go a long way too. “[Women experiencing hot flashes can increase their comfort] using temperature-regulating sheets, cooling sprays, dressing in clothing layers, remaining hydrated by drinking plenty of water, getting sufficient sleep, maintaining a routine exercise schedule, and embracing cognitive behavioral therapy and yoga,” she adds.

Even though almost every woman will experience hot flashes in her lifetime, Dr. Javaid says that many feel ashamed or embarrassed talking to their doctor about them. She emphasizes that there is absolutely no reason for this and encourages anyone who is experiencing a lesser quality of life because of hot flashes to speak up. There are effective treatments available and with help, there’s hope that your symptoms will get better in a, well, flash!

Next up, find out what Kate Walsh has to say about menopause and what she would tell her younger self.