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You're doing your thing, minding your own business, and then you start to feel the heat. It's like someone injected your skin with whatever comes in those little hand-warming gel packets. Hot flushes are sudden feelings of intense heat that you usually experience over your face, neck, and chest.
Hot flushes are annoying, and they can leave you with a pounding heart, flushed skin, and-when they pass-a sweat-stained shirt and a case of the chills. While it's true that they are usually associated with menopause and perimenopause, women (and men) of any age can experience them, says women's health expert Beth Battaglino. "Hot flushes can strike at any time and for a lot of different reasons," Battaglino explains.
Before diving into those reasons, it's important to point out that experiencing one doesn't mean anything scary is going on, says internal medicine expert Dr Alexandra Sowa. "It's not clear why some people experience them and some don't, but for many it's a benign or transient condition," she explains.
If you feel like you're having hot flushes on a consistent basis, Dr Sowa and other docs recommend jotting down some notes in your phone or on a pad of paper every time you experience one. "Write down the time of day and what you were doing before they started," Dr Sowa suggests.
"Keeping that kind of diary may help you make associations or identify your triggers-things such as red wine or stress," adds gynaecologist Dr Lynn Simpson. This info could also help your doctor figure out the underlying cause of your hot flushes, she says.
What causes hot flushes
That said, there are a number of reasons you could be experiencing hot flushes. Here are the most common triggers-and what to do about them.
It's no secret that menopause is the most common cause of hot flushes. During menopause, your ovaries stop releasing eggs and the levels of oestrogen and progesterone are lower. These hormone changes can affect your body's ability to regulate temperature.
Cool off: If your symptoms are severe, your doctor might suggest hormone replacement therapy (HRT). This type of medication includes oestrogen to help manage hormone levels and relieve menopausal symptoms like hot flushes and night sweats. However, there are risks to undergoing HRT. Studies have associated HRT with a higher risk of breast cancer.
Breast cancer treatment
That said, hot flushes and night sweats can be a side effect of breast cancer treatment. Oftentimes, radiation and chemotherapy can cause premature menopause in young women, and older women can go into menopause as a result of chemo.
Cool off: To help manage your symptoms, limit your consumption of spicy foods and hot drinks, avoid hot showers, saunas, and triggers like stress and alcohol. Take a cool shower before going to bed and lower the temperature in your bedroom. Sleep in cooling sheets and comforters made with natural materials like cotton, linen, and silk.
Hot flashes are a side effect of many common prescription drugs, Dr Simpson says. She mentions opioids, antidepressants, and some osteoporosis drugs as a few of the common medication triggers. Some steroids that are used to treat swelling can also trigger hot flushes. Men who have had surgery to remove one or both testicles can also experience hot flushes.
Battaglino recommends looking for symptoms soon after starting a new course of medication. "If they coincide, you'll know that's probably the cause," she adds.
Cool off: Let your health care provider know what's up. He or she may be able to switch you to a similar drug that doesn't leave you hot under the collar. "It may also be that the hot flushes will go away as your body gets acclimated to the medication, so your provider can reassure you the discomfort won't last long," Battaglino adds.
By now you've probably heard that body fat is metabolically active, which helps explain the links between obesity and some cancers. And because excess weight can mess with your metabolism, it can also promote hot flushes, Battaglino says.
Cool off: It's a predictable remedy. But diet and exercise can bring relief, especially if you're overweight or obese, according to a 2010 study from the University of California. Compared with overweight and obese women who did not attempt to lose weight, those who ate healthily and exercised 200 minutes per week were twice as likely to report fewer hot flushes.
A hot bedroom
Your body temperature naturally fluctuates throughout the night, Dr Simpson says. So it's common for women (and men) to wake up in the middle of the night feeling overheated or sweaty.
Cool off: "It may be as simple a fix as turning down the thermostat or sleeping with fewer blankets or clothes," Dr Simpson says. You can also try cooling sheets and lightweight comforters to prevent night sweats.