Why You're Having Hot Flashes Way Before Menopause

Jun 22, 2017 at 8:00 a.m. ET
Image: Paula Winkler/Getty Images

It usually happens at the most inconvenient times. I feel simultaneously hot and cold and all of a sudden, I start sweating. Like, a lot. Like, the type of sweating that happens in a steam room or sauna when you’re just standing there not doing anything physically exerting — only instead of a steam room, I’m on the subway or in a meeting or just sitting my apartment. Sweat drips down my face and back, and within minutes, my clothes are soaked through and my hair is damp. It’s usually accompanied by dizziness, a headache and nausea; in other words, it’s a delight.

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A few years into this happening, I was with a dear friend of mine from college who out of nowhere started sweating like I did. She referred to it as a “personal summer,” which completely makes sense given that you look like you’ve stumbled into a 110-degree rainforest when everyone else is existing at a comfortable 68 degrees. This has been happening to both of us since we were in our 20s, so it’s not menopause or perimenopause and doesn’t appear to be connected to menstrual cycles. So what is it?

Why am I so sweaty?

According to Dr. Crystal Yu, an OB-GYN at Saddleback Memorial Medical Center in Laguna Hills, California, there are a lot of reasons women have hot flashes that have nothing to do with menopause. The most common triggers are certain medications or withdrawal from alcohol or coffee. Night sweats, on the other hand, can be caused by stress, anxiety or panic disorders.

It could also be what Dr. Gerardo Bustillo, an OB-GYN at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California, refers to as “emotional flushing,” which he said is poorly understood and may occur in persons with other heightened physiological reactions to stress, including palpitations and dry mouth. In addition, rosacea, a common inflammatory skin disorder, may present as flushing.

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Both Yu and Bustillo noted that many medications are known to cause flushing, including certain blood pressure medications, steroids and anti-inflammatory medications.

And remember when Joey from Friends said he had the meat sweats? Turns out that’s actually a thing. Nitrates found in processed meats can cause flushing, Bustillo said, along with spicy foods.

Hormonal imbalances like high thyroid level or low blood sugar can also be behind these hot flashes or uncommonly, Yu stressed, they could be caused by a tumor that releases stress hormones into your bloodstream, causing severe sweating.

And while yes, these personal summers could be caused by hormones, it’s not necessarily an imbalance, Dr. Mai Hoang, another OB-GYN at Saddleback Memorial Medical Center in Laguna Hills, California, said. Often, she explained, the sweating is caused by hormonal withdrawal or having less of the hormone overall than before.

“We don’t know the exact cause of hot flashes, but it is related to hormonal changes and the hypothalamus, the body thermostat,” Hoang explained. “So some women in the immediate postpartum period or after ovarian surgeries can experience short-term hot flashes.”

In addition, certain neurologic orders such as cluster headaches, epilepsy, spinal cord injuries, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis may be the culprit, Bustillo explained. Less commonly, flushing may be caused by potentially serious conditions, including carcinoid syndrome, systemic mastocytosis, pheochromocytoma and certain cancers, he said.

What to do if this happens to you

Personal summers can be scary and completely overwhelming given the loss of control you have over your own body, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Yu advised paying close attention to the timing of your episodes and keeping track of symptoms, then seeing a doctor to arrive at a diagnosis.

Bustillo encourages his patients to keep a diary for at least two weeks documenting all flushing episodes along with associated medicine and food intake, physical activity and emotional state. Certain laboratory evaluations may be necessary depending on the suspected diagnoses, and treatment depends on the underlying cause for the flushing, he explained.

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Before visiting the doctor, here are some questions Yu suggested addressing:

  • How many times a week does it occur?
  • Does it usually happen in the mornings, afternoons or evenings?
  • Do you have any associated symptoms like chest pain or shortness of breath?
  • Have there been any other changes in your lifestyle, including rapid weight loss, insomnia or fatigue?
  • Do you have a family history of this disorder?

Ideally, you will get some relief once you get to the bottom of the causes of your hot flashes. But until then, throw an extra pack of moist towelettes into your bag.

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