What causes hot flashes?

woman with fan
Hot flashes aren't necessarily dangerous, but they are uncomfortable.
Christopher Robbins/Digital Vision/Thinkstock

Imagine a sudden wave of intense heat rushing through your body. Within seconds of its arrival, this strange feeling that you're experiencing causes you to sweat, and you'd swear that your skin is on fire. As foolish as it sounds, you feel like stripping off the clothing that you're wearing and finding the coolest place you possibly can -- even if it's the middle of winter. Within minutes, or even hours in some cases, the feeling passes, and this odd sensation disappears just as quickly as it arrived. If you’ve ever experienced a similar scenario, chances are that you’re not crazy, and you’re probably not dying either. You’re simply dealing with a condition known as hot flashes.

Hot flashes can make your body feel like it has somehow become a raging furnace. The heat you experience during a hot flash is often overwhelming; it really does feel as if it's taking over your body. Clothes can suddenly feel too heavy to wear. The bed covers feel as if they're suffocating you, and you’re often drenched in sweat. Hot flashes are often associated with chills -- the chills are typically the result of sweat drying on the surface of the skin.


For some, hot flashes are random, but for others, they occur on a regular basis. Either way, hot flashes can be as short as two minutes or as long as thirty minutes, with a frequency that may increase over time.

Some people claim that they are able to determine when they’re moments away from having a hot flash. They experience what is called an aura, or a feeling of premonition, just prior to the onset of the flash. This early warning system gives these fortunate few a brief time to prepare for the uncomfortable feeling that's soon to take over their body.

Hot flashes are a condition that a vast number of people worldwide deal with -- an estimated 50 million women in the United States alone. But what group does it affect the most, anyway? What can be done to minimize, or even prevent, hot flashes? And perhaps most importantly, what causes hot flashes? Read the next page to find out.


Hormones, Menopause and Hot Flashes

An estrogen molecule.
In women, varying levels of estrogen can cause hot flashes.

Contrary to the beliefs of some, hot flashes are not caused by fevers, illness or even burning desire. In fact, the real culprit is sex hormones. Estrogen levels in women and testosterone levels in men can fluctuate. If these hormones are suppressed, such as during treatment for certain types of cancer or if the ovaries are removed, this can cause blood vessels to dilate. The dilated blood vessels allow more blood to rush through the body. This sudden increase in blood flow brings with it more heat -- typically to the body's upper half. This may all sound a bit alarming, but really hot flashes aren't dangerous at all, and the only problem is the discomfort associated with them. In fact, 85 percent of all women will experience them at some point.

Even though there is no danger involved in a typical hot flash, if you're experiencing them, it's always a good idea to check in with your doctor. This is particularly good advice if you're too young for menopause. The reasoning behind this is simple: Other causes of hot flashes can include hyperthyroidism and some types of cancer. It's always wise to be sure.


A pregnant woman in front of a window.
Pregnancy is one of the root causes of hot flashes in women.
Sabine Scheckel/Getty Images

Women's hormone levels can fluctuate greatly during a typical lifetime. Hot flashes during pregnancy, perimenopause and menopause are common occurrences. In fact, hot flashes are the most common symptom of menopause. Hot flashes can also be triggered or amplified by environmental factors. Similar to migraine pain, outside factors such as alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, spicy foods, exercise, fat and chocolate can all trigger a hot flash. Climate -- such as a hot room, medication, sleep deprivation and stress -- can also be to blame. If you're experiencing hot flashes, it makes sense to keep a diary to track some of these environmental conditions that may be triggering them.

Do you think women are the only ones fanning themselves due to hot flashes? Well, think again. Men can experience hot flashes, too. Obviously, menopause is not the reason. Men deal with hot flashes when they experience a drop in testosterone. This can be caused by aging, but is most often due to a surgical removal of the testes or due to medication that impacts testosterone production. If a man is experiencing hot flashes, he should definitely consult a doctor. Testosterone deficiency is often the reason, and a simple blood test can verify this.

A condition that is often associated with hot flashes is called night sweats. Night sweats are really just hot flashes that occur during sleeping hours. While turning down the temperature in your bedroom at night can be helpful, this won't eliminate night sweats. Some resort to wearing moisture wicking undergarments, clothes or pajamas to feel more comfortable. Dressing in layers is another approach. This allows the person with night sweats to remove outer clothing layers when the heat gets too intense.

A testosterone molecule.
Men can experience hot flashes when testosterone levels fall.

Now that you know what causes hot flashes, read the next page to find out if there's anything you can do to treat them.


Treating Hot Flashes

Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) is linked to cancer.
A woman holds her hormone replacement therapy (HRT) patches.
Ian Waldie/Getty Images

The first line of defense against hot flashes is finding a way to control the triggers. This isn't an impossible task, but it may be difficult for some to accept because it almost always requires some form of lifestyle change. For example, if you really enjoy eating spicy Mexican food but determine that it triggers your hot flashes, clearly it's in your best interest to stay away from it. If you realize you're having hot flashes after enjoying that afternoon cigarette, you should probably quit smoking. This simple lesson can be applied to all hot flash triggers: If you determine that a certain environmental factor is triggering your hot flashes, avoid it.

There are several known methods for managing the symptoms of hot flashes. You could ask your doctor for a prescription for an antidepressant, like Prozac, or an epilepsy medication, like gabapentin, or you could do something as simple as making sure that you get regular exercise, which can help reduce the symptoms of hot flashes. Making flaxseed a part of your daily diet has been an effective herbal remedy for reducing hot flashes in some people.


For years, hormone replacement therapy (HRT) was the premiere treatment for hot flashes until concerns were raised about its link to breast cancer and stroke. You may be surprised to learn that hormone replacement therapy is still available as an option; however, when HRT is selected as a treatment, it's now understood that it's best to use the lowest dose possible for the shortest period of time. Even lower risks are associated with this method of treatment when HRT is delivered in patch form versus taking the treatment orally.

If you're dealing with the discomfort of hot flashes, the good news is that there's always new research underway. In fact, a recent study shows that an injection of a local anesthetic into the nerves of the neck that regulate body temperature can greatly reduce hot flashes, although this treatment has only been used for cancer patients to date [source: healthfinder.gov].

With so many people worldwide dealing with this terribly uncomfortable condition, it's good to know that doctors and researchers are still actively pursuing a cure for hot flashes. Follow the links on the next page to read more about hot flashes and hot flash related topics.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links


  • "Hot Flashes." Aetna Intellihealth. December 19, 2006.  http://www.intelihealth.com/IH/ihtIH/WSS/9339/25423.html
  • "Hot flashes in men: What causes them?" The Mayo Clinic. November 14, 2006. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/hot-flashes-in-men/AN00943
  • "Hot Flashes." University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. April 8, 2008. http://www.uihealthcare.com/topics/womenshealth/wome3263.html
  • "Menopause Basics." The Cleveland Clinic. January 19, 2007. http://my.clevelandclinic.org/disorders/Menopause/hic_Menopause_Basics.aspx
  • Reinberg, Steven. "Hot Flashes Reduced by Neck Injection." Healthfinder.gov. May 15, 2008. http://www.healthfinder.gov/news/newsstory.asp?docID=615520
  • "Understanding Menopause." The National Women's Health Information Center. May 29, 2008. http://www.womenshealth.gov/menopause/