For many women, the term “hot flash” brings only one thing to mind: menopause. But hot flashes can have many causes other than the end of a woman’s monthly menstrual cycle. Understanding these other causes could help determine whether or not your hot flashes are a signal that you’re heading toward menopause.
You may experience a feeling similar to a hot flash when your body temperature rises. Using heated blankets, a hot water bottle, or even just keeping the temperature too high in the house can cause this sensation. You may feel flushed and extremely warm, mistaking your symptoms for hot flashes. Taking a cool shower to lower your body temperature can help restore your body to a more comfortable temperature.
Hot flashes may be a side effect of some prescription medications. Raloxifene (Evista), commonly prescribed for osteoporosis, and tamoxifen (Tamoxifen and Nolvadex), a treatment for breast cancer, may cause skin flushing and hot flashes. Hot flashes may be a side effect of chemotherapy too. You may also feel flushed after taking tramadol, a prescription pain reliever. However, this side effect is rare.
Some over-the-counter medications can also cause symptoms that mimic those of menopause-related hot flashes. Check the labels of all medications you take. Also, be sure to discuss symptoms with your doctor.
Certain spicy foods — particularly hot peppers — are a common culprit too. Foods that pack a fiery punch can dilate blood vessels and stimulate nerve endings. These biological changes create a feeling of extreme heat. Alcohol, for some people, also has an effect similar to hot flashes. This response can develop at any point in a person’s life.
Your body may release the stress hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine when you’re stressed out, nervous, or upset. These hormones pump up blood flow and produce a warming sensation throughout the body. Similar to blushing, “flushing” can result from a wide variety of factors — from stress to spinal cord lesions and migraine headaches. Flushing causes entire sections of your body to turn red and feel extremely warm.
Sometimes, however, flushing is simply an allergic skin reaction to food or environmental elements that’s not related to stress.
Hot flashes can be hormonal, even when they’re not related to menopause or perimenopause (the transitional period from regular menstruation to menopause). Doctors believe that the hypothalamus is the key to hot flashes. The hypothalamus is the section of the brain that regulates body temperature. The natural drop in estrogen that happens as a woman ages can often cause the hypothalamus to malfunction. Eating disorders, head traumas, and genetic disorders are other possible causes. Hypothalamus dysfunction can be treated with hormone replacement therapy.
It’s easy to mistake a fever for hot flashes. Some infections that cause fever, like those in the urinary tract, may be the true cause of the “hot flash.” Carcinoid syndrome, an illness in which a tumor releases chemicals into the body. The release of chemicals creates symptoms that are very similar to hot flashes.
The sensation of overheating is also a symptom of hyperthyroidism. Also called overactive thyroid, this condition occurs when the thyroid gland produces too much of the thyroid hormones. Hyperthyroidism can have a variety of causes, including Graves’ disease and thyroiditis. Hyperthyroidism is usually marked by other symptoms. These can include a sudden weight loss and a change in bowel patterns.
Treatment for hyperthyroidism often depends on the cause. Generally, beta blockers or anti-thyroid medications are used to relieve symptoms. Surgery may be necessary in extreme cases to remove the malfunctioning areas of the thyroid gland.
Menopause usually occurs when a woman is in her fifties, and perimenopause can begin as early as ten years before. This means you can begin experiencing hot flashes years before your menstrual cycle completely ceases. Your doctor will likely take all your symptoms into consideration and may assess your age, family history, and lifestyle before making a diagnosis.
Keep a hot flash diary to help your doctor diagnose your symptoms. Take note of each incident, including what food you ate prior to the incident. A symptom journal of this kind can help determine which lifestyle changes you can make. It will also help you avoid triggers and possibly alleviate symptoms altogether.