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Are You Having a Hot Flash or Is It Just Summer Heat? Here’s How to Tell

We all know that beach days, sunny skies and the occasional scorcher are synonymous with summer. But one thing about the season that is hard to celebrate is the soaring temperatures that often make it feel like the only option is to hide inside in the AC. And for women who are going through perimenopause and menopause, who are already suffering from hot flashes, the heat can make it impossible — and hard to tell what’s going on with your body.

So how can you determine if you’re having a hot flash or it’s just the summer heat? Experts give us the scoop on how to spot the difference, plus tips on cooling down.

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What is a hot flash?

First, it’s important to know what a hot flash is so that you can identify it. “Hot flashes are short, sudden episodes of the feeling of intense heat of the head, neck, and chest,” says Dr. Melynda Barnes, Clinical Director for Rory. “When a hot flash occurs with a red face, neck, and/or chest it is called a hot flush. Hot flashes typically follow a consistent pattern that is unique to the person. Some women experience sweating and/or palpitations during these episodes. Hot flashes can occur at any time, day or night, without warning. They usually last three to five minutes, but the duration can vary from 30 seconds to 30 minutes. Some women can have hot flashes up to twenty times a day or more.”

Hot flashes can take a serious toll on a woman’s quality of life, causing discomfort, sleepless nights, and embarrassment in social situations. We still don’t know exactly what triggers hot flashes. “A hot flash is thought to be caused by your temperature regulation gone awry at the level of the hypothalamus in the brain,” says Lisa M. Valle, DO, gynecologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA. “This occurs when estrogen levels drop.”

How can you tell if you’re having a hot flash or just suffering from the summer heat?

“Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish between a hot flash versus feeling hot from the summer heat,” says Valle. “The heat can significantly worsen your discomfort. It is hard enough for your body to regulate temperature when the summer heat hits. If you add hot flashes to the mix it can create a distressful summer.”

One way to tell the difference is hot flashes usually start in the core and rise up to the face or scalp, Barnes explains. Plus, they are often accompanied by flushing, sweating and in some women palpitations or a sense of anxiety. “If you are not a peri/meno/postmenopausal woman, then it very unlikely that you are experiencing hot flashes,” she says. “For women who experience hot flashes, they are not temperature-dependent, which means that they can have them all year-round.” 

How can you cool down if you’re having a hot flash?

Here are some simple things you can do to help you manage hot flashes:

– Stay hydrated with iced drinks.

– Take advantage of the summer heat by going for a swim.

– Wear light cotton clothes. Dress in layers, specifically wearing breathable fabrics like linens and cottons so that when you are having a hot flash, you can easily remove layers.

– Carry a fan with you.

– Avoid hot or spicy foods, alcohol, and caffeinated beverages, since they can sometimes trigger hot flashes.

– Apply a cool washcloth or cooling towel on your neck.

– Hormone replacement therapy helps with hot flashes.

– Have a cold glass of water

– Some women carry ice packs in small insulated bags so that when they are having a hot flash they can use the ice pack to cool down. For a chicer — and more discreet — solution, try Hot Girls Pearls, a line of cooling jewelry.

– To prevent a hot flash from waking you up at night, keep your bedroom cool, use moisture-wicking sheets and wear pajamas made of materials that can dry quickly.

A version of this story was published May 2019. 

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