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.
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.
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.