It's almost a rite of passage for menopausal women, the adult equivalent of the cramps that got you out of seventh-grade gym class. The temperature seems to rise, the skin flushes, the heart quickensthe hot flash has arrived, without invitation and with plans to make itself comfortable. All the while, of course, making you uncomfortable. But what exactly is a hot flash, and what can you do about it?
Women who have experienced hot flashes may find it hard to believe, but the body's internal temperature doesn't change during a hot flash. So while you might feel that your body temperature is blazing at 500 degrees, it's actually holding steady at 98.6. What does change is the skin's temperature, which usually rises a degree or two, and in some cases may go up as many as seven degrees. The temperature range is relatively wide, but the time range is wider. Some hot flashes dissipate in seconds, others last a handful of minutes and some hang around for as long as half an hour.
The drop in estrogen levels appears to confuse the hypothalamus, which regulates the body's temperature. The hypothalamus gets the incorrect message that the body is too hot and then the body's natural cooling mechanisms take over; the heart pumps quickly, moving blood around to release heat, and sweat attempts to cool the body further. All this may leave a woman as sweaty, red and dizzy as if she just ran a sprint rather than standing in the office or in line at the grocery store.
Needless to say, the hot flash experience is an unpleasant one. There are steps a woman can take, however, that can help her make the best of the situation.
One way to control hot flashes is to keep track of the situations in which they occur. For many of the 75 percent of women who experience hot flashes, stress is a main trigger. For other women, triggers may be caffeine, alcohol, smoking, or spicy foods.
If you realize that you always get a hot flash after eating your favorite curry, you may want to cut that out of your diet. While you may not be able to completely avoid stress in the workplace or at home, you may be able to better predict and manage your hot flashes. You may want to have a cool drink of water by your side for that big meeting, or wear layers you can quickly shed when you're hosting the family dinner.
You might want to stash an extra shirt at your desk so that you may change clothes if you feel uncomfortably sweaty. Some moist towelettes and a small bottle of perfume tucked away in your purse also might refresh you after an unexpected hot flash.
Recent research suggests that simply being conscious of your stress and reminding yourself to relax may cut down on the severity of your hot flashes.
Many hot flashes, known as night sweats, occur when you are sleeping. You should sleep on cotton sheets and wear a light nightgown for maximum comfort. Some women find relief in positioning a small fan next to their beds.
Medical attention may help women whose hot flashes interfere with their day-to-day lives.
Hot flashes, for the most part, are a natural part of a woman's life. At times they may embarrass, frustrate, or just plain annoy the woman experiencing them. It helps to remember that you are not alone and that they will not last forever. Remember doubling over with those cramps on that long ago day in junior high, thinking it would never end? This too shall pass.