It is really your choice. If your hot flashes are not bothering you that much, you may want to just wait them out. Hot flashes generally become milder and less frequent as time goes on, and for most women they totally disappear. However, there are some women who have a long experience with hot flashes for several years, maybe longer, and then an occasional hot flash forever. The challenge is that no one can predict how long your hot flashes will persist. Hormone therapy provides very effective treatment for hot flashes, but it is not always a permanent cure. About forty percent of women have a return of their hot flashes when they stop treatment—somewhat like a second menopause when the estrogen level drops again.
There are a number of low-risk coping strategies and lifestyle changes that may be helpful to you for managing hot flashes, but if hot flashes remain very disruptive then prescription therapy can be considered. Prescription hormone therapy (HT) approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and by Health Canada include systemic estrogen therapy (ET) and estrogen-progestogen therapy (EPT; for women with a uterus). Some of these treatments have been around for 70 years. A newer FDA-approved hormone product, for women with a uterus, combines estrogen with bazedoxifene instead of a progestogen. Bazedoxifene is an estrogen agonist/antagonist, which means that it works like estrogen in some tissues while inhibiting estrogen activity in others. In this case, it helps to protect the uterus from cancer. There are reasons why some women should not use HT and the list includes such things as a history of estrogen-related cancers such as breast cancer, a history of liver disease, blood clots in the legs or lungs, cardiovascular disease, and stroke. A review of your health history with your healthcare provider is an important first step.
For women who prefer not to take hormones or cannot take them for other health reasons, nonhormonal drugs approved to treat depression, called selective serotonin-reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), have been found to be effective in treating hot flashes in women who don’t have depression. The only SSRI the FDA has approved thus far for treating hot flashes is paroxetine 7.5 mg. It was shown to improve hot flashes and offers women a new choice. Discuss with your healthcare provider all of these options to see which ones are appropriate for you.
In women ages 45 to 56 with regular menstrual cycles, about 55% have experienced vasomotor symptoms at some point, shows new research in Menopause. The cross-sectional study examined 1,513 women in the Pacific Northwest. Native American women were most likely to report vasomotor symptoms (66.7%), followed by black women (61.4%), and white women (58.3%). Asian and Hispanic women in the study were least likely to report ever having vasomotor symptoms (about 8% and 37%, respectively), similar to the patterns during the menopausal transition and early postmenopause.
Why would premenopausal women have hot flashes? As levels of estrogen go down in the body, numbers of hot flashes go up. Estrogen naturally declines as a woman gets older, especially at menopause. But estrogen levels can fluctuate enough to cause hot flashes years before menopause. Some women have hot flashes right after giving birth. Some may get them from intense exercise or from illness.
The relationship between reproductive status, general health, hormone levels, age, and vasomotor symptoms is complex and needs further investigation. But rest assured that it is perfectly normal to have hot flashes in the years before menopause. If you are still having regular cycles, these vasomotor symptoms do not necessarily mean menopause is beginning.
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JoAnn V. Pinkerton, MD, NCMP