Here’s why you’re still burning up.
After 40-ish years of Aunt Flo coming to town each month, you may have welcomed menopause with open arms. The end of monthly periods, cramps, and bloating? Sign. Me. Up. What you may not have appreciated so much was the downpours of sweat and sudden flashes of heat that so delightfully popped up throughout your day. (Apparently, hot flashes don’t care if you’re getting ready for date night or about to have an important meeting at work.)
“Patients will often tell me that they feel very embarrassed by their hot flashes. They’ll be in the middle of a very important presentation, a moment of high stress, and suddenly they’ll be sweating profusely and blushing in the face,” says Jennifer Wu, MD, an ob-gyn at Lenox Hill Hospital.
While hot flashes are unpleasant, they’re totally normal (at least 80% of women experience them). And the light at the end of the tunnel is that they’ll end when menopause does … right?
Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. (Sorry.)
“Patients think that hot flashes will only last from six months to a year, but it’s very common that it can last for several years. And that they may even have an occasional hot flash even 10 years after they’ve stopped their periods,” says Dr. Wu. Greaattt.
Why Do Women Get Hot Flashes?
During perimenopause (the natural transition into menopause) and menopause, a woman’s estrogen levels begin to decrease. “There’s a change in the temperature control center [in the brain], and they will experience these hot flashes in response to the lower estrogen levels,” says Dr. Wu.
Hot flashes tend to come on very quick. “[Women will] feel their temperature rising from head to toe, they feel sweaty, it lasts about 10 to 12 seconds, and then it’s gone,” says Dr. Wu.
What Increases the Risk of Hot Flashes After Menopause?
Continuing to get hot flashes long after menopause is undeniably annoying, but it’s also common. Your hot flash fate, however, depends on a variety of factors.
To determine how long certain women experience hot flashes after menopause, the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN) followed 3,167 women of different races and ethnicities who were in transition to menopause. They found that women who had their first hot flashes before their menstrual periods ended, had hot flashes for an average of nine to 10 years. When hot flashes didn’t start until after their last menstrual period, the average duration was only about three and a half years. Ethnicity played a role too: African American women tended to have the longest stretch of hot flashes (more than 11 years), while Japanese and Chinese women experienced hot flashes for about half that time.
Women who are current or former smokers, overweight, stressed, depressed, or anxious tend to experience hot flashes for a longer period of time too.
What Can I Do About These Everlasting Hot Flashes?
You don’t just have to suffer through them. There are several treatment options that can help you manage hot flashes.
“When I speak with patients about hot flashes, we talk about observing the hot flashes to see what makes them better [and] what times of year they’re better. There is a certain amount of trying to wait it out,” says Dr. Wu.
Certain lifestyle tweaks can help you manage your day-to-day symptoms too, like:
- Dress in layers. “I often tell patients to dress in layers. With a hot flash you want to be able to peel off your different layers quickly so you can cool yourself down,” says Dr. Wu.
- Carry a cool drink. “Always keep a cold drink with you, drink it quickly, [and] place the cold bottle on the back of your neck. Sometimes cooling yourself down from the inside out can really help,” says Dr. Wu.
- Sleep in skimpier PJs. Skip the flannel jams and go to bed in a tank top and underwear. Always keep a cold drink at the bedside, says Dr. Wu.
“There are medications that can help with the hot flashes. There are ones that are non-hormonal, that deal with temperature regulation, and there are also hormonal therapies that involve estrogen,” says Dr. Wu.
If your hot flashes are affecting your quality of life, talk to your doctor.
Persistent Hot Flushes in Older Postmenopausal Women. American Medical Association, 2008. (Accessed on March 29, 2018 at https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/414566)
A longitudinal study of the treatment of hot flushes: the population study of women in Gothenburg during a quarter of a century. Göteborg, Sweden: Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Sahlgrenska University Hospital, Göteborg University, 2002. (Accessed on March 29, 2018 at https://journals.lww.com/menopausejournal/Abstract/2002/05000/A_longitudinal_study_of_the_treatment_of_hot.3.aspx)