Saturday, November 28, 2009

What is a Hot Flash Anyway?

Basically, a hot flash is a brief feeling of intense warmth and sweating. It can be brief or extended in duration and intensity. While there can be other medical reasons for hot flashes, we'll concentrate on menopause-related hot flashes.

A hot flash begins as a sensation of intense warmth in the upper body, and can be followed by skin redness (flushing), drenching perspiration, and for some women, a final cold, clammy feeling. Typically, these symptoms begin at the head and spread downward toward the neck and chest, but they can also feel like they rise upward from the chest. Hot flashes can last from 30 seconds to 5 minutes, with the average being 4 minutes.

Hot flashes can be accompanied by other uncomfortable sensations, such as heart palpitations, a pressure feeling in the head, or feelings of dizziness, faintness or weakness.

Researchers do not know exactly what causes hot flashes. Current theories suggest that most hot flashes are due to a menopause-related drop in the body's level of estrogen. This drop affects the hypothalamus, an area of the brain that regulates body temperature. In a hot flash, the hypothalamus seems to sense that your body is too hot even when it is not, and tells the body to release the excess heat. One way the body does this is to widen (dilate) blood vessels, particularly those near the skin of the head, face, neck and chest. Once the blood vessels return to normal size, you feel cool again.

Hot flashes affect up to 85% of women during the years immediately before and after menopause. Hot flashes can begin as early as two to three years before the last menstrual period and can last for six months to as long as 15 years after the final period, but the average is two years.

Some women have only a few episodes a year, while others have as many as 20 episodes a day. Hot flashes occur in women who experience natural menopause, as well as in women who undergo surgical menopause because their ovaries have been removed or because they take medications that lower estrogen levels.

In most women who undergo natural menopause, hot flashes generally subside within 2 to 5 years after the last menstrual period. In a small number of women, however, hot flashes can continue for 8 to 15 years after the last menstrual period. There is some evidence that women who go through menopause due to surgery may have more severe hot flashes for more years than women who go through natural menopause.

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