Hot Flash Basics
Hot flashes are one of the characteristic signs of menopause. The sudden wash of heat across your face and entire upper body, sweating, racing heart and nausea are just the beginning. Other symptoms include feeling weak, difficulty catching your breath and a sudden headache. While hot flashes are most frequently associated with menopause, "the change" isn't the only cause of hot flashes.
There may be many different causes of hot flashes, but hormones are always at the root of the problem. When estrogen reaches low levels, it affects the hypothalamus in the brain. The hypothalamus manages several body functions, including sleep, regulation of sex hormones and the temperature within your body. When hormone levels fluctuate, so does your body temperature--and hot flashes result.
Women taking the drug tamoxifen to treat breast cancer often experience hot flashes. The drug affects hormone levels, and hot flashes are a common side effect. Tamoxifen works against the effects of estrogen, which can fuel breast cancer. Women may experience hot flashes from tamoxifen while the body gets used to the drug. Some women suffer hot flashes after discontinuing medication use. While tamoxifen doesn't trigger menopause, its effect on estrogen is significant enough to trigger hot flashes.
Cancer seems to be related to hot flashes, due to its treatments. Menopause can happen for different reasons, which may all trigger hot flashes. Women with cancer may undergo menopause that has been induced by treatments. Chemotherapy and surgery to remove some reproductive organs can be behind hot flashes during cancer treatment.
Surgery to remove reproductive organs--a hysterectomy--can induce menopause and all its symptoms. Surgically-induced menopause causes hot flashes because of the changes in estrogen levels when sex organs, including the ovaries, are removed.
The Bottom Line
Hormone levels, specifically the hormone estrogen, signal the brain to control the body's temperature. When estrogen is affected, for whatever reason, hot flashes can result. Menopause is most often the cause, whether it's your body's natural time or it's been induced by medications or surgery. Any condition, medication or surgery that stops estrogen production or interferes with its effects may result in hot flashes.