Vasomotor symptoms (VMS), like hot flashes and night sweats, are the most common symptoms experienced during menopause. They’re caused by hormonal fluctuations that affect how your body controls its temperature.

A majority of women experience vasomotor symptoms (VMS) in the years leading up to menopause (also known as perimenopause). Vasomotor symptoms are more universally known as hot flashes (or hot flushes) and night sweats.

The severity of VMS varies from woman to woman. In some cases, VMS can greatly affect your quality of life. You may be able to manage VMS at home, but if your symptoms are severe, talk with a doctor about treatments that can help.

Vasomotor symptoms are considered classic symptoms of menopause. They include hot flashes (or hot flushes) and night sweats.

Vasomotor symptoms are thought to be caused by changes in hormone levels that affect how your body controls its temperature. The exact way these hormone changes cause VMS isn’t fully understood.

During a hot flash, the body senses it’s too hot, and sends an exaggerated signal to the rest of the body to dilate the blood vessels and to sweat in an attempt to cool down.

Hot flashes feel like sudden waves of heat in your body. Your face and neck may become flushed. You might sweat heavily, especially in the upper body. Your fingers might tingle, and your heart may beat faster than usual.

Each hot flash can last for between 30 seconds and 10 minutes. Hot flashes are called night sweats when they make you sweat excessively at night.

Vasomotor symptoms start in the years leading up to menopause, also known as perimenopause or the menopausal transition.

Menopause is a point in time 12 months after a woman’s last period. Most women start perimenopause in their mid-to-late 40s, but it’s possible to start in your early 40s or late 30s.

Hot flashes and night sweats last, on average, for about 7 years. But they can last for more than 14 years.

Research suggests that smoking or having obesity or overweight may increase the duration of hot flashes. Black women may also experience more frequent and severe VMS.

The frequency of VMS like hot flashes varies from woman to woman and from day to day. Some women have them several times a day, while others have them a few times a week.

The frequency can also change over time as you get closer to menopause. Hot flashes are most common in the year before your period stops and in the year after your period stops.

Vasomotor symptoms are related to how your body controls its temperature. Anything in your environment or foods that make you warm could trigger a hot flash.

Common VMS triggers include:

  • spicy foods
  • hot beverages
  • caffeine
  • alcohol
  • stress
  • hot weather

You can’t always prevent vasomotor symptoms, but avoiding common triggers, like alcohol and spicy foods, may help reduce how often you have them.

Both obesity and smoking also increase your risk of VMS. You may be able to lower your risk by losing weight if have obesity, or by quitting smoking if you smoke.

Research also suggests that taking combined oral birth control pills may also help reduce the risk of VMS before menopause.

Most, but not all, females will have vasomotor symptoms during menopause. According to the North American Menopause Society, three of every four women in North America experience hot flashes during perimenopause.

According to the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN), the prevalence of VMS also varies by ethnicity. SWAN is a 25-year study of over 3,000 ethnically and racially diverse women living in the United States.

SWAN researchers found that African American women had the highest prevalence of VMS. Asian women had the lowest VMS prevalence.

Treatment for VMS depends on the severity of your symptoms. You may be able to manage symptoms with lifestyle changes, like avoiding triggers and keeping your bedroom cool at night.

If your VMS are severe or happen frequently, your doctor may recommend hormone therapy. Hormone therapy isn’t right for everyone, as it cause side effects. like an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, breast cancer, and dementia.

Antidepressants, such as paroxetine (Paxil), given at low doses, may also help with VMS.

Vasomotor symptoms can be managed with changes to your routine. Lifestyle changes to manage VMS at home include:

  • wearing layers you can easily take off if you start having a hot flash
  • wearing loose clothing
  • sipping ice water
  • taking a cool shower before bed
  • keeping the bedroom cool with an air conditioner or fan
  • avoiding triggers, like spicy foods, alcohol, and caffeine
  • avoiding exercise right before bedtime
  • keeping a moderate weight
  • avoiding cigarettes

Recent research also suggests that eating plant-based diet rich in soybeans could also reduce the frequency and severity of hot flashes.

Rarely, VMS can be caused by other conditions not related to menopause. Other potential causes include:

  • thyroid problems
  • certain cancers, such as carcinoid syndrome
  • side effects of certain medications, like hormone therapy used to treat breast cancer

Vasomotor symptoms are a common symptoms of menopause.

For some women, VMS are a minor annoyance. But for others, they can be intense and make life during perimenopause more challenging.

Talk with your doctor if you have any concerns about VMS or any other menopause symptoms.