For many women, the term “hot flash” brings only one thing to mind: menopause. But hot flashes can have many causes other than the cessation of a woman’s monthly menstrual cycle. Understanding these other causes could be key to determining whether or not your hot flashes are a signal that you’re headed into your menopausal years.

When your body temperature elevates, you may experience a feeling similar to hot flashes. For example, using heated blankets or 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.

Medications and Foods

Hot flashes are the side effects of a wide variety of prescription medications, including raloxifene (Evista) and tamoxifen (Tamoxifen and Nolvadex). Some over-the-counter medications also can cause symptoms that mimic those of menopause-related hot flashes, so thoroughly check the labels of all medications. Also be sure to discuss symptoms with your doctor when seeking treatment.

Certain spicy foods—particularly hot peppers—are so disruptive to the body that they can dilate blood vessels and stimulate nerve endings, creating a feeling of extreme heat. Alcohol, for some people, also has an effect similar to hot flashes. This effect can develop at any point in a person’s life.

Stress and Emotional Causes

In reaction to emotional stimuli, your body may release the stress hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine, which 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—causing entire sections of your body to turn red and feel extremely warm. Sometimes, flushing is simply an allergic skin reaction to outside stimuli like food or environmental elements.

Health Causes

Hot flashes can be hormonal, even when they are 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, as this section of the brain regulates body temperature. A malfunction in the hypothalamus is generally caused by the natural drop in estrogen that occurs as a woman ages. It can also be due to other causes, such as eating disorders, head traumas, and genetic disorders. Hypothalamus dysfunction can be treated with hormone replacement therapy or by making basic lifestyle changes.

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, creates symptoms that are also very similar to hot flashes.

The sensation of overheating is a symptom of hyperthyroidism. Hyperthyroidism can have a variety of causes, including Graves’ disease and thyroiditis, but it’s usually accompanied by other symptoms, such as 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. In extreme cases, surgery may be necessary to remove the malfunctioning nodules.

Process of Elimination

Menopause usually occurs when a woman is in her fifties, and perimenopause can begin as early as ten years before. Since you can begin experiencing hot flashes years before your menstrual cycle completely ceases, your physician will likely take all your symptoms into consideration and may assess your age, family history, and lifestyle before making a diagnosis. To help your doctor diagnose your symptoms and determine which lifestyle changes you can make to help relieve them, keep a hot flash diary. Take note of each incident, including outside factors like what food you ate prior to the incident. It will enable you to avoid triggers and possibly alleviate symptoms altogether.