Anatomy of a Hot Flash

If you’ve had one, you know. It can come without warning and leave you feeling like you’re ready to collapse in a heap. The hot flash. Because the fact that you endured having a period, cramps, learning how to remove blood stains from clothing long before you had children, and perfecting your emergency response to the “Christ, I just started my period and I’m in public and completely unprepared” scenario weren’t enough for Mother Nature to throw at you.

Perimenopause and menopause are no joke. Just when you think you’ve got a predictable cycle finally figured out, they come along to completely screw your system. Your cycle can become unpredictable in the most heinous of ways (while still ovulating and, thus, still providing for the fact that you could become pregnant…’cause worrying about that at 50+ was something you were looking forward to, right?), you experience changes in your skin/hair/weight, and your moods are all over the place. It’s puberty all over again. And that completely sucks. At least when you were 12 or 13, people expected you to be painfully awkward. Now you’re expected to have your shit together while you go through all of it.

But the hot flash. What exactly are they, and why do menopausal women get them? How long do they last, and is there anything that can be done about them?


It’s estimated that 40-85% of women will get them. How about those odds? Quite a spread, huh? One of the many reasons that this time of life can be such a bitch. Will you get them? Maybe.


I don’t know.

Some women get them; some women don’t. There really doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason as to who gets them and who doesn’t. Seriously, consulting a Magic 8 Ball might give you a more accurate prediction as to your personal odds.


If you haven’t yet experienced a hot flash, it’s exactly what it sounds like it is. It’s a wave of heat that hits you out of the blue and usually lasts for no more than 30 seconds to a minute or two. They can be mild and leave you feeling like you just got momentarily blasted by a heater,  they can be severe and leave you flushed and drenched in sweat, That's Hotor they can be anywhere in between. You may feel like you need to frantically peel off layers of clothing, you may experience just the slightest of sweaty glow, or you may just need to fan yourself with the nearest makeshift fan worthy item.

Even better? It’s not uncommon for them to be preceded or accompanied by a rapid heartbeat, dizziness, nausea, weakness, amazing amounts of perspiration, and/or a crawling sensation on your skin. Sexy, huh?

What will yours be like? Again, I refer you to the Magic 8 Ball.


In general, hot flashes seem to be focused around one’s head/neck/chest area but some women report experiencing them throughout their whole bodies. They most commonly start at the head/neck and then work their way down the body. Thank goodness, because it’s generally more socially acceptable to remove one’s jacket in public than one’s pants.


If you’re going to get hot flashes, there is, of course, no way of accurately determining when they will start. They may be one of the first signs that you’re starting perimenopause, and they may not burst onto the scene until you’re solidly into menopause. They might be intermittent or they might be rather frequent. You might experience them over the course of several months or several years.

And speaking of their frequency, as I said, there’s no real predictability. I mean, what fun would that be if you could prepare for them, right? No, they show up whenever they want to and usually when it’s inconvenient just like your “bohemian” cousin Kathy who lives in a camper with a dingo named Ed and just needs a place to park until she can establish residency in your state. You could be on the commuter train, in a job interview or important meeting, out to eat, in a wine and paint class, at the mall, or anyplace else you would rather they not occur.

And they won’t restrict themselves to daytime hours, either. Oh, no! Enter the hot flash that occurs while you’re sleeping, commonly referred to as night sweats. You’ll wake up wildly throwing covers off of yourself and seriously considering standing naked in the moonlight in your backyard. If you’re lucky, they won’t be that severe but there are many women I’ve heard from that report waking up thoroughly drenched in sweat that has soaked through their pj’s and sheets. And you thought you were done dealing with wet sheets and pj’s in the night. You just never realized they would be your own.


So why do hot flashes even happen? Consult that Magic 8 Ball again because science seems to be unclear on this one. Researchers think they occur because changing hormone levels are messing with the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that controls our internal “thermostat”.


So, you’re having them. How do you deal with them, you’re wondering? That’s a good question. There is no tried and true, magical pill or cream or oil that you can use that will absolutely make them go away. Because we’re all beautifully unique flowers, we will all have beautifully unique hot flashes and require beautifully unique remedies.

Some may find benefit from herbal supplements; some may take prescription hormone replacement or bio-identical hormone replacement therapies; some may need to just carry one of those personal fans and learn how to layer their clothing real well.

What’s important is that, if you’re experiencing hot flashes and feel you need more help than a battery operated fan and a sweater you can peel off at a moment’s notice can offer, you seek the advice of your personal doctor or medical professional.

Because this is one of those times when the advice of the Magic 8 Ball is not suggested.


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