When you think of hot flashes, you probably think of menopause, but that's not the only thing that causes them -- some medications and therapies, such as chemotherapy, can do the same thing. Most hot flashes are the result of changes in hormone levels, which confuse the hypothalamus -- a part of the brain that links the nervous system to the endocrine system -- into thinking that the woman's body is overheating when it isn't.
Typically, hot flashes begin as a sudden sensation of intense heat in the face and neck, often spreading to the rest of the body. Women often get an uncomfortable feeling, or "aura," that indicates that they're about to experience one. The skin can become very hot to the touch and appear red, sometimes called a "hot flush." These symptoms can last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes, leaving a woman literally dripping perspiration from her face and neck. Some women experience their hot flashes as night sweats and describe waking up in pools of sweat.
And, lest you get the wrong impression, hot flashes mean more than simply getting hot and sweaty without any exertion. A rapid heartbeat, dizziness and nausea are fairly common companions to a hot flash.
Some triggers for hot flashes are hard to avoid -- stress, caffeine, alcohol, spicy food and hot weather. Wearing breathable fabrics like cotton and using fans and cold packs can help, and hormone therapy and vitamin E supplements are common treatments.