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Understanding flashes and night sweats

This piece was originally published on Elektra Health.

Hot flashes (or night sweats, if they happen at night) are one of the most infamous menopause symptoms. Everyone will experience them differently and the frequency, intensity, and overall duration can vary. This hormone-related temperature instability is often referred to as “vasomotor symptoms” (VMS).

Hot flashes feel like episodes of perceived heat and/or sweating and typically last less than two minutes. You might feel a sudden sensation of warmth that spreads through the upper body and face. A flushed appearance, red or blotchy skin, rapid heartbeat, perspiration, and (ironically) chills are also common symptoms. 

Why do hot flashes happen?

Although the causes aren’t yet fully understood, evidence points to hormone changes. When estrogen levels drop (which happens during menopause), the hypothalamus — our body’s internal thermostat — becomes more sensitive to slight changes in body temperature. Thinking it’s overheated, the hypothalamus starts working to cool the body by pulling blood away from the core to the skin. This kick-starts a chain of events that causes flushing, sweating, and an internal sensation of heat despite the fact that body temperature isn’t actually rising.

There are four primary types of hot “flashers:”

  • None (or relatively few) flashes: a rare and lucky bunch!
  • Early onset: flashes begin in perimenopause and decline soon after menopause
  • Late onset: flashes begin during menopause and persist into postmenopause
  • Super flashers: flashes begin in perimenopause and persist well after menopause

What else can I expect from hot flashes?

Most people experience symptoms for six months to two years. Although more people report daytime hot flashes, night sweats are often more bothersome. Which makes sense — when you’re sleeping, you can’t anticipate a hot flash like you can during the day, and take the necessary steps to mitigate it (e.g., shed layers, move to a cooler room, or crank up the A/C). So where does that leave you? Often, waking up drenched in sweat. What’s particularly frustrating is that a common trigger for hot flashes and night sweats is stress. So stress leads to night sweats which leads to poor sleep, which is stressful and that makes it difficult to manage said stress…you get the picture.

Night sweats can bring on a lot of anxiety for people — especially when they start to impede your life. If you’re suffering from night sweats that routinely disrupt your sleep — and especially if you qualify as a “super flasher” — talk to your healthcare provider to create a plan for managing your symptoms.

Read more about hot flashes and symptom management here


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