What causes hot flashes? 11 possible conditions

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What Are Hot Flashes?

Some women call it “the change,” but until a woman has gone through it, she most likely doesn’t know what to expect. While menopause signals the end of a woman’s menstrual cycle, symptoms can begin years before menstruation stops. One of the most common symptoms is hot flashes, which is a feeling of extreme warmth. This isn’t a comforting feeling of warmth, however. For some women, it’s nearly unbearable.

While some may joke about a woman’s sudden feeling of warmth, hot flashes are no laughing matter. They can cause insomnia, distract you from work, and cause excessive sweating that makes getting through the day without a change of clothes impossible.

Decrease in Estrogen

Experts are still not completely in agreement about the cause of hot flashes during menopause. Most attribute it to the decrease in the production of estrogen, which occurs as women progress toward the menopause stage. As the Mayo Clinic points out, however, low estrogen alone does not cause hot flashes as patients of all ages with low estrogen don’t always have hot flashes. Somehow, it is the decrease in estrogen that accompanies menopause that is believed to be the cause.

For most women, this decrease is gradual, but many experts believe when estrogen falls, the hypothalamus is adversely affected. As the hypothalamus regulates your body temperature, the decrease in estrogen causes the brain to detect too much body heat. As a natural reaction to this, some theorize the brain releases hormones to help lower body heat, causing a patient’s heart rate to rise and blood vessels to dilate in order to allow more blood to flow through and dissipate the heat. The increased blood flow causes the body to produce its natural cooling method- sweat. This series of events is what creates that heated, sweaty feeling that can be so inconvenient for sufferers.

While this reaction may seem normal while you are sitting in a sauna or experiencing extreme summertime heat, it can be quite alarming when it strikes for no apparent reason, and patients suddenly find themselves breaking into a sweat at the most inconvenient time.

Lifestyle Causes

Not every woman will experience hot flashes, and those who do will go through it at varying degrees. For some, they will pose a small inconvenience. For others, they will disrupt everyday life. The key to reducing symptoms may be in first understanding what makes them worse. In general, leading a healthy lifestyle may be a way to keep hot flashes to a minimum. Factors as obesity, inactivity, and smoking may worsen the symptoms.

Some contributing factors are outside a person’s control. Genetics are said to play a large role in whether or not a woman has hot flashes during menopause. According to one study, women who have naturally lower progesterone levels tend to suffer more severe symptoms. Ethnicity may also play a role, with doctors at the North Texas Health Science Center finding that African American women were more likely to experience more frequent and more intense hot flashes than their Caucasian counterparts. Latina women also experienced more frequent hot flashes in the study, although the intensity of their hot flashes was less.

Secondary complications from hot flashes can disrupt a woman’s life as well. Some women experience “night sweats,” a form of hot flashes that can cause insomnia. Over time, lack of sleep can cause major problems for sufferers, with such symptoms as memory loss, difficulty concentrating, irritability, and even depression. Because of this, it may become urgent to seek treatment from a doctor.

Inciting Factors

While many of the causes of hot flashes are outside a woman’s control, certain factors can trigger them or make already existing hot flashes worse. Alcohol and spicy foods can bring on an attack, as can caffeine. Patients may also notice exposure to hot temperatures while taking warm baths or spending time in a sauna may worsen symptoms. Stress can also bring on an attack. While these activities alone won’t cause hot flashes, when a patient already suffering from a drop in estrogen engages in them, the combination could create an uncomfortable situation.

For women who suffer from hot flashes, it can sometimes seem there’s no relief. But by understanding what causes hot flashes, a woman can begin to take steps to relieve symptoms. As nobody knows a woman’s body better than she does, experts advise to note when symptoms are at their worst and try to determine what factors are present. This will help you find relief as naturally and healthily as possible.

Article Sources:

  • Mayo Clinic Staff. “Hot Flashes.” MayoClinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, June 11, 2011. Web. January 2, 2012. <http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/hot-flashes/DS01143/METHOD=print>.
  • Prior, J. (n.d.) Progesterone (not estrogen)for hot flushes in perimenopausal and menopausal women. Centre for Menstrual Cycle and Obulation Research. Retrieved Sept. 20, 2012, from http://www.cemcor.ubc.ca/help_yourself/articles/progesterone_hot_flushes
  • Rossmanith, WG, and W. Ruebberdt. “What Causes Hot Flashes? The Neuroendocrine Origin of Vasomotor Symptoms in the Menopause.”PubMed.gov. US National Library of Medicine, May 25, 2009. Web. January 02, 2012. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19903037>.
  • Simpkins, J., Brown, K., Bae, S., Ratka, A. (August 20, 2009). Role of ethnicity in the expression of features of hot flashes. Maturitas. 63(4) 341-6. Retrieved September 20, 2012, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19592184
Read More

See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.

1

Menopause

Menopause is a natural biological process in women that marks the permanent end of menstruation and fertility. Hot flashes, vaginal dryness or pain, and frequent urination are signs.

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2

Postmenopausal Atrophic Vaginitis

Postmenopausal atrophic vaginitis normally occurs after menopause. The condition can lead to increased vaginal infections and may make sexual intercourse painful.

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3

Dysfunctional Uterine Bleeding (DUB)

DUB is a condition that causes vaginal bleeding to occur outside a woman's regular menstrual cycle. It may be accompanied by bloating and breast tenderness.

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4

Carcinoid Syndrome

Carcinoid syndrome is a condition in which a carcinoid tumor secretes chemicals into the bloodstream. The cause of this rare syndrome is unknown and treatment involves treating the cancer.

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5

Hypogonadism

Hypogonadism occurs when your sex glands produce little or no sex hormones. The sex glands, also called gonads, are the testes in men and the ovaries in women. Sex hormones help control sex characteristics, such a...

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6

Agoraphobia With Panic Attacks

A panic attack is a feeling of sudden fear that does not have a reasonable cause. This causes symptoms such as a fast heartbeat and chest pain. If you have multiple panic attacks in different settings, you are said t...

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7

Head Injury

A head injury could be an injury to the brain, skull, or scalp. It can vary in severity depending on the cause. In some cases face swelling can be a sign of a head injury.

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8

Stress And Anxiety

Stress can be triggered by an event that makes you feel frustrated or nervous, such as moving, death, starting a new job, and having a baby. Long-term stress can produce both physical and psychological symptoms.

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9

Hyperthyroidism

The thyroid gland produces a hormone that controls how your cells use energy (metabolize). Hyperthyroidism occurs when the body produces excessive amounts, causing rapid heart rates, weight loss, and heat intolerance.

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10

Graves' Disease

Graves disease is an autoimmune disorder that leads to hyperthyroidism and causes thyroid swelling.

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11

Panic Disorder

Panic disorder occurs when you live in fear of having a panic attack. You are having a panic attack when you feel sudden, overwhelming terror that has no obvious cause. You may experience physical symptoms such as ...

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This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose.
Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.
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