By Ella Guthrie
During menopause, women will experience a variety of different symptoms, one of the most common being hot flushes, also known as hot flashes. In the UK, an estimated 70% of menopausal women experience hot flushes, with varying degrees of severity.
Alongside changes in your menstrual cycle, they’re one of the earliest signs that you may be starting menopause, and are caused by hormonal changes. The NHS describes hot flushes as short feelings of heat that seem to appear out of nowhere and spread throughout the body, often combined with sweating, palpitations, and flushing of the face. They tend to last until a few years after your last period.
How often a woman experiences hot flushes depends. While some women experience them over regular, spread-out intervals, others will experience them constantly over a short period of time. Unfortunately, a few women will experience near constant symptoms over the full time frame.
All is not lost if this happens to you however — hormone replacement therapy (HRT), which is now deemed safe for most women despite past controversy, can be extremely effective at preventing hot flushes, and is increasingly prescribed by doctors to treat them.
But for women approaching menopausal age, a big concern will probably be wanting to know what a hot flush will feel like. How can you tell when you have one? And what remedies work best to prevent them or calm them down?
While many of us have undoubtedly had our own experiences of becoming hot and flustered, the feeling of a menopausal hot flush is altogether something much more intense. Forty-nine-year-old Lauren, founder and director of Women of a Certain Stage, likens having a hot flush to being a radiator, with the feeling of hot water running through your veins.
“One minute, you are minding your own business, carrying on with your daily tasks, and completely in control of your world,” she says. “Then, the next minute, a hot flush strikes, out comes the hair stuck to the side of your head, and your blouse becomes transparent and sticks to all the wrong places.”
Lauren also mentions that hot flushes can make you feel “helpless’, especially when they come out of nowhere and you’re in a public space. “You generally feel nervous and in need of a bit of TLC, as opposed to the successful business women that you are,” she says.
“My whole upper body would become drenched in sweat,” she recalls. “There was one time I was going into a board meeting for an important discussion, and I knew I had to be on the top of my game.” But ten minutes before the meeting she had a hot flush.
“I could tell that the men were switching off, no longer leaning in, if you know people well enough you can tell,” she says. “It then ends up with you doubting yourself and not feeling confident, which can be detrimental to critical relationships.”
Fifty-three-year-old Fiona, a holistic weight-loss consultant, experienced hot flushes nightly, otherwise known as night sweats, at the beginning of menopause. “I found that the hot flushes were like a burning hot inferno,” she explains. “I was usually in bed and would have to throw off the duvet covers and lie awake for a while until they passed.”
Fiona adds that she could not stand to have any part of her covered, or touching anything else. “I would then get freezing cold as I was wet with sweat, so needed to cover up again fast,” she adds. “It was constant, it happened several times in the night keeping me awake.”
Julie, too, mainly experienced hot flushes before sleep. The 52-year-old gardener says, “It comes on suddenly without warning, like someone has lit a fire underneath you. I feel as if I’m burning from the inside outwards, and I have to throw the duvet off.”
She adds that her partner can feel the heat coming off her, and she gets sweaty and slightly dizzy. “There’s not much you can do to help but wait for it to pass, which for me is pretty quickly,” she says.
Although for Julie, her flushes come on very suddenly, some women say they get warning signs. For Fiona, this is a tingling feeling. “You get a tingle across your body, including your arms and legs, and know you are about to break into a sweat,” she says. “You feel like you need to get outside and suffer the consequences, the hot flush sends you a warning sign.”
When it comes to coping with hot flushes, most women would probably just say they grin and bear it, although a lot of women also claim that small lifestyle changes can keep the discomfort that comes with hot flushes to a minimum. Unhealthy diet, alcohol and stress are just three factors thought to exacerbate them in menopausal women.
Fifty-one-year-old Rachel, founder of The Mutton Club, found consuming certain things, namely caffeine and sugar, would immediately trigger a hot flush. “I have not had any caffeine since my early menopause as I was advised to avoid it,” she says. “Exercising regularly can also help keep hot flushes at bay when our hormones change, and increasing the amount of natural phytoestrogens in our diet by consuming foods such as flaxseeds and soya can also help regulate our hormones and keep hot flushes under control.”
Lauren found that diet and exercise have been crucial for keeping her symptoms under control, and adds that specific triggers for her include spicy food, alcohol, particularly red wine, and hot drinks like tea. Her main way of coping with hot flushes is to keep a balanced, mindful lifestyle.
If you are experiencing hot flushes and they are impacting your day to day life significantly, it is worth visiting your GP to see what treatment options are available. According to GP and menopause specialist Dr. Louise Newson, HRT is is extremely effective at treating menopause symptoms. The treatment works by replacing the hormones women are losing in their body, the main one being oestrogen.
“The guidelines are very clear,” she says. “For the majority of women who start taking HRT under the age of 60 the benefits outweigh the risks.” Taking HRT, if you are a good candidate for the treatment can not only rid you of menopause symptoms, but it can also help decrease the risks of other health issues.
“It can help prevent your future risk of heart disease, osteoporosis, arthritis and diabetes, which a lot of people don’t realise,” she adds. In fact, she recommends her patients continue taking HRT even when their hot flushes have subsided.
While hot flushes are uncomfortable and leave you feeling not only physically drained but impact your mental health too, it doesn’t mean you should let them affect your life. Lifestyle changes, and medical interventions can help greatly, as can talking about them and breaking down any stigma surrounding them. Hot flushes are experienced by the vast majority of women, and while talking about them won’t prevent them, it can help create valuable support networks, and ensure you don’t suffer in silence.