If you're younger than a certain age and have ever gotten a hot flash, you know two things. First, you've seen that when they hit, they hit hard: Within seconds, you've gone from reasonably comfortable to totally red and sweaty, and there aren't enough fire emoji in the world to describe the out-of-nowhere heat. And second, you know that freaky feeling that you've somehow skipped a decade or two of life and are about to head straight into an early menopause. But it turns out there's a much simpler explanation.
Despite the fact that we associate hot flashes almost exclusively with menopause, "they're normal even in young women," says Taraneh Shirazian, MD, assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at NYU Langone Medical Center.
For those of you who have been lucky enough to never have a hot flash, let's break it down: People describe the sensation as a wave of heat starting in the middle of the body or neck, which then quickly moves up to the face. The worst of it only lasts for about 20 seconds, Dr. Shirazian says, but it may take a few minutes to feel normal again. And even if your hot flashes are brief, they can come increasingly frequently as you age. Oh and — fun bonus — people are more likely to report having them at night.
"For women who are peri- or postmenopausal, hot flashes can be debilitating," Dr. Shirazian says. They may have trouble getting good sleep and can even develop anxiety around hot flashes.
But again, it's not unusual for younger women to get hot flashes, too. However, the ones you'll experience in your 20s tend to be milder than those you'll have later on. That's all thanks, as usual, to your hormones.
Although we don't fully understand why hot flashes happen, Dr. Shirazian explains that they do seem to be related to the hormone shifts that happen during menopause. It's at this point and in the years leading up to it that you'll experience a drop in estrogen, which may mess with your body's normal methods of regulating your temperature.
The other major time you'll have significantly less estrogen flowing is — you guessed it — right before your period. So it's (unfortunately) totally normal to experience a mild hot flash or two before and during the first day or so of your period.
The bad news is that, if you're someone who gets hot flashes, there's not a whole lot you can do to stop them. "I have patients that swear by cooling wipes," Dr. Shirazian says, and others find that keeping their bedroom at a cooler temperature and keeping a fan on their face can help reduce the intensity of their hot flashes.
If younger patients are getting them frequently, Dr. Shirazian suggests trying hormonal birth control to balance out hormonal fluctuations during the menstrual cycle. And if your hot flashes are really bothering you, or you're getting them at times that are unrelated to your menstrual cycle, definitely chat with your doctor about ways to manage them.
However, Dr. Shirazian assures us that having hot flashes when you're younger is not a sign that you're going to have a harder time with them when you get older. You may just be stuck with them for a very sweaty minute or two.