by Rebekah Scott
(last updated November 5, 2011)
A hot flash is exactly what it sounds like—the sudden and intense onset of a hot sensation in the face and upper body. Rapid heartbeat, sweating, dizziness, headaches and nausea often accompany hot flashes. When the sensation is over, the face may be flushed red, and a chill can set in as sweat cools down the skin. As you can imagine, hot flashes are difficult to deal with, and leave many women feeling frustrated and helpless.
Hot flashes happen when estrogen levels dip and a message is sent to the hypothalamus—the gland that regulates body temperature—that the body is becoming overheated. The hypothalamus then sends a message to the nervous system to release the heat the body is storing in any way possible. The heart begins pumping faster to push more blood through the circulatory system. Then blood vessels dilate so blood can pass near the surface of the skin and heat can be dissipated, and glands that produce sweat increase production.
In previous years, doctors recommended estrogen therapy to help menopausal women deal with hot flashes. However, this type of treatment is falling out of favor in many medical circles as more and more studies show that hormone replacement therapy can increase a woman's likelihood of developing serious health problems like breast cancer.
To help with hot flashes, women should keep track of them to try and identify what may have triggered the sensation. Examples of possible triggers can include environmental influences where the temperature may be elevated, such as a hot shower or a stuffy room. Some women believe that hot and spicy foods cause their hot flashes, as well as drinking caffeinated beverages and taking diet pills. Stress is one of the most often reported triggers, so women who experience hot flashes should do whatever they need to in order to relax and stay calm.
There are practical ways to cope when a hot flash hits. Dressing in layers so that outer layers can be taken off is a very helpful hint. Sitting near a fan, or fanning the face with a piece of paper can help cool down the skin. Drinking ice water, not wearing tights or nylons, taking shoes off, wearing breathable natural fabrics, keeping the thermostat low, and sleeping with light sheets can also help.
As far as prevention goes, keeping in good shape is the best bet. This means lots of good old fashioned exercise, a balanced diet that focuses on fruits and vegetables, and plenty of sleep at night. If hot flashes become frequent and too unbearable, it's time to talk to the family doctor.
Hot flashes are definitely a nuisance, but they can be dealt with in an effective manner. These coping strategies will help reduce the discomfort that hot flashes cause and make the transition into menopause easier to deal with.
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