When Wanda Edwards started sweating for seemingly no reason, she felt a sense of dread. She remembered her mom going through debilitating hot flashes when she experienced perimenopause. When the sweating began in 2009, Edwards, then 48, thought she was too young.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, I don’t ever want to go through what she’s going through,’ because it was actually horrible to watch,” Edwards, 61, a communications director in Greensboro, North Carolina, tells TODAY.com. “When I began to sweat without any reason I was like, ‘Oh my God, please no.’”
After a few weeks of hot flashes, which happen about four times an hour, Edwards visited her doctor. The doctor agreed that Edwards was likely experiencing perimenopause-related hot flashes but didn’t really offer any solutions.
“The only thing that I have found that works for me is a handheld fan or battery operated fan that I can turn on at any second,” Edwards explains. She remembers when she first started experiencing hot flashes women whispered and used code to talk about menopause. People called it “the change” or asked if Edwards was experiencing “a private summer.”
“When I first started to have hot flashes, no one was talking about it,” she says. “I was embarrassed because I was like, ‘Oh my God everybody is going to know I’m older,” and I was just having to deal internally with those voices that I was hearing that said, ‘What would people think?’”
Recently, more people have been speaking out about menopause. Oprah, Michelle Obama and Naomi Watts have all been sharing their experience with perimenopause and menopause in the hopes of normalizing conversations about it. That’s why, in part, Edwards is sharing her story.
“Nobody was talking about it,” she says. “I just started to talk about it — how long I’ve had hot flashes, and then people started to talk about (menopause).”
What are hot flashes?
The majority women experience hot flashes as a sign of perimenopause.
“It’s an extremely common problem,” Dr. Jane Minkin, clinical professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences at The Yale University School of Medicine, tells TODAY.com. “As we go through the menopause transition, starting in perimenopause through menopause, about 80% of us are going to experience hot flashes.”
A lot of people are suffering. There’s no question about that.
Dr. Jane Minkin
About 20% of women experience moderate to severe hot flashes while the other 60% experience hot flashes that are “annoying but not devastating.”
“A lot of people are suffering,” Minkin says. “There’s no question about that.”
Hot flashes, also called vasomotor symptoms, occur when a person feels an intense flush of heat, which quickly goes away, causing them to feel cold.
“The blood vessels in the superficial skin area dilate,” Minkin says. “Blood actually rushes through you, you get hot and then you lose heat … so actually people can get very sweaty and hot and then shiver afterwards.”
Lessening estrogen, which occurs in perimenopause and menopause, seems to be to blame for hot flashes.
“We certainly know that they are associated with the decline in estrogen,” Minkin says. “But the exact mechanism is being worked on right now.”
For many, hot flashes are the first sign that they’re in perimenopause, where women experience symptoms such as hot flashes, vaginal dryness, brain fog, mood changes and sleep disturbances prior to menopause. Menopause is a stage of life that occurs after one does not experience a period for 12 months.
“About 10% of unfortunate women that will happen to have hot flashes that persist for more than 10 years. So they can go on for quite a while,” Minkin says. “The average duration, unfortunately, is about 7.4 years.”
For some, hot flashes lessen over time.
“Women do get the really big blast in the beginning,” Minkin says. “They tend to get better over the course of time.”
Doctors can treat hot flashes with hormonal treatments, what might fall under hormone replacement therapy. Some women are wary of hormonal medications and rely on lifestyle changes, such as wearing cooler clothing, to deal with their hot flashes. Hot flashes can be linked to other cardiovascular problems, which is why women should discuss them and other symptoms with their doctors.
“Women who suffer significant hot flashes may also have some other cardiovascular issues going on,” Minkin says. “They should be talking to their providers about ways to help because there are certain things that can be done.”
Hot flashes fall into a range, which includes:
- Mild — People feel warm but can still function.
- Moderate — People break out in a visible sweat but they can still be active.
- Severe — People who sweat but need to stop doing what they’re doing because the flash is distracting.
“(Women) can get four to 10 hot flashes,” Minkin says. “Women who have seven or more severe hot flashes a day or more than 50 a week (have severe hot flashes).”
Coping with hot flashes
Edwards’ hot flashes last between 30 and 45 seconds and they’re sometimes so intense that she needs to stop what she’s doing to take a breather.
“I have to stop talking,” she says. “I even (excuse) myself if I’m in a meeting just to cool off and come back.”
But her friends, loved ones and coworkers understand she experiences them and supports her. Though, her granddaughters don’t enjoy riding in the front seat of her car because she keeps it too cold.
“They’ll be like, ‘I’m not going to ride in the front seat with your grandma,’” she says. “I’m constantly flipping from the heat to the air because when I get hot, I’m telling you I have to find something to cool me down.”
Edwards hopes that her hot flashes will eventually wane. She wanted to share her story so people experiencing them felt less alone.
“I began to talk about it so that they don’t feel embarrassed when they begin to sense something different going on,” she says. “It’s an opportunity for women to know they’re not alone and this stigma, you don’t have to carry it.”