The hot flush is well known as the classic menopausal symptom. Hot flushes and sweats are called vasomotor symptoms and vary immensely in both their severity and duration; for many women, they occur occasionally and do not cause much distress. However, for about 20 per cent of women, they can be severe and can cause significant interference with work, sleep and quality of life.
Women are affected very differently during the menopause, and there is no way of predicting how the transition from normally functioning ovaries to cessation of function, and hence decline in oestrogen, will affect each individual. “It’s important to remember that every woman will be impacted differently by menopausal symptoms, especially as there are so many variables such as diet, lifestyle and life stresses, that can all contribute to your experience,” explains Dr Heather Currie, founder of Menopause Matters and an associate specialist gynaecologist and obstetrician at Dumfries and Galloway Royal Infirmary.
As your oestrogen declines, alongside other contributory factors, the thermostat in your brain malfunctions so that it thinks your body is overheating when it isn't. “This leads your brain to switch on cooling down mechanisms such as sweating and blood flow through skin blood vessels (flush) to dissipate heat,” says Dr Currie. “How these feel varies, as does the severity, duration and frequency of the hot flush.”
Hot flushes usually last between three and five minutes. Dr Currie goes on to explain that another large variable is the impact of these symptoms. “If they occur at night, they can disturb your sleep, which can then have secondary effects on your energy, fatigue and mood,” she says.
Normally, there is a daily pattern of rises and falls in your body temperature, being lowest at about 3am and highest in the early evening. These small changes are not normally noticed, but a menopausal woman may flush with every temperature rise, whether these are normal changes or not; for example, moving between areas of different temperature or having a hot drink.
Hot flushes can also be associated with headaches and palpitations; with approximately 85 per cent of women being affected in some way by these early onset symptoms, they can feel hard to manage or adapt to.
How long will they last?
About 50 per cent of women experience symptoms of hot flushes for around seven years, but many continue experiencing them in their 60s, and some even longer, so there is a huge variation.
Simple steps, like wearing loose layers of cotton clothing, rather than man-made fibres and having a fan in your bedroom can help. Excess caffeine can worsen palpitations, so drink coffee, tea and caffeinated soft drinks in moderation.
Even if you aren’t troubled by hot flushes and sweats, Dr Currie stresses it’s important to know about the other health effects of the menopause. “Even though some symptoms will resolve themselves, long term oestrogen deficiency can be associated with vaginal and bladder problems as well as increased risk of osteoporosis and heart disease. Making diet and lifestyle changes will improve your later bone and heart health. This includes stopping smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, increasing exercise and reducing alcohol,” she suggests.
For more information on how to manage your symptoms visit Menopause Matters.