Hot flushes and sweats

Hot flushes and sweats (vasomotor symptoms) are the most common symptoms of the menopause and can affect three out of every four menopausal women*. Characterised by sudden feelings of heat which seem to come from nowhere and spread upwards through the body, the chest, neck and face, hot flushes and sweats are probably caused by changes in hormone levels which affect the body’s temperature control. Women talked about their experiences of hot flushes and sweats, the effect on their life, and what they did to relieve the symptoms.

Hot flushes
Some women we talked with had either not had flushes at all, had noticed just occasional mild feelings of warmth lasting seconds, or had simply not been bothered by them. Others, however, had more intense hot flushes which happened throughout the day and night, lasting several minutes or longer and accompanied by sweating, dizziness, light-headedness and heart palpitations. One woman said she had ‘about twenty’ hot flushes a day; another flushed every ten minutes throughout the day (see ‘What is the menopause?’).
Women generally experience hot flushes at some stage during the menopause; in some they continued for about a year or more after the last period. However, hot flushes can continue for many years after the menopause. There is no way of predicting whether women will have flushes or not and some women continue to flush until their 80s. One woman was still having hot flushes ten years after her periods stopped; another, who stopped taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT) four years ago, ‘never imagined’ she would be having hot flushes in her late 70s.
Women described their hot flushes vividly. They talked about a ‘creeping sensation’ which rises from the feet through the whole body; an ‘explosion’ in the chest and neck which goes ‘right up to your brow’; ‘a thermometer going up and down’. One woman compared the warmth she feels to ‘going under a sun bed’, another felt as if someone had opened a ‘little trap door’ in her stomach and put a hot coal in.
While hot flushes can happen without warning throughout the day, women spoke of certain triggers which appeared to bring them on. These included the wearing of woollen clothing and polo necks, temperature changes, feeling stressed, drinking alcohol or coffee, and eating spicy food (see ‘Non-HRT and lifestyle options’). Even taking a hot shower, making love, and doing housework had affected some women.
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Hot flushes during the day at work can be uncomfortable and made a few women feel self-conscious and embarrassed (see ‘Work’). Those who were badly affected felt ‘exposed’ because their hot flushes were highly visible and embarrassing. One woman felt her face lit up ‘like a Belisha beacon’; another developed a ‘red rash’ on her chest. Sweating sometimes left women ‘totally soaked’.
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Night sweats
Hot flushes at night, or ‘night sweats’, can also be troublesome. Women talked about tossing and turning and feeling hot ‘like a furnace’, waking up ‘soaking wet’, and experiencing ‘awful drenching sweats for about two years’. One woman’s night sweats felt like ‘a serious infection’ that made her temperature ‘go haywire’. Others talked about searching for ‘cool parts’ in the bed or getting up to change night clothes or bedding.
But not all women get night sweats. Some never have them, or can cope if they do. Others can be even more upset by night sweats than by daytime flushes because they disrupt sleep leading to daytime tiredness, irritability, poor memory and concentration (see ‘Sleep’). To stay cool some women avoided touching their partner, or woke them up with their restlessness (see ‘Relationships, sex and contraception’).
Coping with hot flushes and night sweats
While HRT and complementary therapies may help some women experiencing hot flushes and night sweats (see ‘Hormone replacement therapy (HRT)’, ‘Complementary therapies’), others ‘learn to live with it’ or use common sense in managing these symptoms (see ‘Non-HRT and lifestyle options’). Choosing lighter clothing, sitting near a window, turning down the heating, and sipping cool drinks can all help relieve hot flushes during the day. One woman talked about ‘spending lots of time in supermarket chiller aisles’; another sprayed her face with rosewater; while a third fanned herself with a magazine. One woman felt it was better just to ignore hot flushes, rather than draw attention to herself by ‘waving her hands and flapping paper’.
Women did various things to relieve night sweats. These included sleeping naked, wearing a cotton nightie or t-shirt to bed, and buying separate quilts. One woman bought a ‘Chillow Pillow’ (a cooling pad which ‘relieves discomfort from overheating in any part of the body’) to keep the back of her neck cool.
Hot flushes and sweats are not dangerous but can be debilitating and reduce many women’s quality of life. In most cases they ease with time.

*Cancer Research UK 2013.

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Last reviewed July 2018.

Last updated July 2018.



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