A hot flash, sometimes called a hot flush, occurs when blood vessels near the surface of the skin dilate to cool. When this happens, a feeling of sudden heat rolls through the body accompanied by sweating, and sometimes, heart palpitations. When these symptoms occur with a flushed face, it is called a hot flush.

Hot flashes usually occur during menopause, or perimenopause, although they can occur at other times also. They occur when the body experiences hormonal changes, especially the decrease of estrogen. When this happens, the hypothalamus—the area of the brain that regulates body temperature—mistakenly detects a rise in body temperature and sets about to cool down the body. Blood vessels near the surface of the skin dilate to release the heat, the sweat glands open up, and a hot flash is born.

The onset of menopause is the major time in a woman’s life when this happens. Up to 75% of pre-menopausal, Caucasian women have reported experiencing hot flashes. Stress and anxiety can also trigger hot flashes by causing hormonal imbalance.

What Does a Hot Flash Feel Like?

A hot flash is a sensation of intense heat, feeling like you are burning up, and often is accompanied by sweating and rapid heartbeat. Some women also experience sudden thirst at the onset of the hot flash. Hot flashes can vary in intensity from time to time and from woman to woman. There are mild, moderate, and severe hot flashes.

  • A mild hot flash feels like it just got too warm in the room. It usually lasts only a few minutes. The frequency varies from day to day and from woman to woman, but often there are just a few per day and even fewer during the night.
  • A moderate hot flash feels like your whole upper body is heating up, alternating with cold chills, and your heart could pound right up out of your mouth. This intensity can wake you up at night and disrupt your days.
  • A severe hot flash may last as long as 10–20 minutes. Your body may feel like it’s on fire, you may sweat profusely, your face may turn red, and your heart will pound. This severe degree of hot flash can make you feel like you’re going crazy. Severe hot flashes are very disruptive to the lives of the women who experience them.

What Does a Hot Flash Feel Like: What Others Say

“My hot flashes feel like being on a tanning bed, feeling as hot as a furnace, or maybe like having hot coals in the pit of my stomach.”

“It was six years ago that I had my first hot flash. I was only 37 years old and eight months’ pregnant with baby number seven. After hours of heat waves rolling through my body, my face being flushed, and nausea threatening to overwhelm me, I would be left feeling shaky and weak. The longest hot flash lasted a very long seven hours. My obstetrician, cardiologist, and internist all examined me, but could find nothing wrong. The obstetrician prescribed Zoloft, which stopped the hot flashes. But when I quit taking it, they started up again. I plan to try flaxseed to see if that helps.”

“My hot flashes can last for hours. According to my doctor, this is normal, but I don’t know anyone else who sweats like I do. Even when everyone else is wearing jackets, I’m just drenched with sweat. Then I chill. I have taken my temperature when having a hot flash, and it can run between 99.6º to 100º F. I’m 60 years old and have been having these awful hot flashes for eight years. They started about four or five years after I entered menopause. A ceiling fan helps, but not much.”

“I’ve been having hot flashes for close to a year, but lately they are getting worse, especially at night. The hot flash is then followed by a cold chills. First I’m too hot, then I’m chilled. It interrupts my sleep because they’re so bad at night. I would love to do something about them, but I’m not sure what to do. I’m so tired from not getting enough sleep.”

Hot Flashes During Pregnancy

University of Pennsylvania researchers have surveyed pregnant women and found that they complain of experiencing hot flashes five times more often than do non-pregnant women in the same age range. Hormones cannot be turned off during pregnancy, but steps can be taken to ease the annoyance of them. What does a hot flash feel like in pregnancy?The duration of hot flashes varies widely among women. Some have them for just a short period of time; others have them for the rest of their lives. However, generally the hot flashes will lessen in intensity as time goes by. There are things you can do, or not do as the case may be, to lessen the severity of hot flashes. Things to avoid include:

       • Caffeine

       • Spicy foods

       • Stress

       • Heat

       • Alcohol

       • Cigarette smoke

       • Tight clothing

Some Things to Try for Relief

• Wear light clothing made of natural fibers, such as cotton. Layer your clothing when necessary, so you can easily slip off a sweater or other covering when a hot flash attacks.

• Keep the house cool, particularly the bedroom, so it will be easier to sleep at night.

• Practice deep, slow abdominal breathing 15 minutes morning and evening. Take six to eight breaths per minute, inhaling and exhaling slowly.

• Get some exercise every day. Walking is the primary exercise, but swimming, bicycling, and dancing are good, too.

• Try a chill pillow. A cool pillow can moderate your hot flashes at night.

• Ask your doctor about hormone replacement therapy, but don’t use it for long, less than five years is enough. Short-term hormone replacement therapy does carry some risks that include blood clots and inflammation of the gallbladder. Hot flashes may return after you stop the hormone replacement therapy. For any other possible treatments that may provide relief, talk to your doctor.

Here’s one woman expalaining what does a hot flash feel like and things you can do to ease the discomfort: