What are hot flushes?

Hot flushes are a common side-effect of breast cancer treatment. People experience them in different ways, but most commonly they feel like a sudden hot sensation that spreads through the body. Some cases of hot flushes are mild, infrequent and cause little distress, whilst others are frequent, uncomfortable and can feel embarrassing for the person experiencing them. Hot flushes can cause sweating, irritability, palpitations and blotchy red skin. You may also be experiencing night sweats which can be very disruptive to a good night’s sleep.

What causes hot flushes during breast cancer?

Many people need to take tamoxifen or aromatase inhibitors (e.g. arimidex) during breast cancer treatment, which either lowers or blocks your body’s sex hormone production (oestrogen). It is believed that this change is what affects your body's temperature control and results in hot flushes. Tamoxifen can also cause other menopausal symptoms.

Cooling off

It can be particularly hard to deal with hot flushes during warm weather. There are, however, things you can do to ease your symptoms and cool off in the heat:

  • Use a fan
    Keep a battery-powered handheld fan with you that you can use out and about if a hot flush catches you off-guard. These can cost as little as £5.00 to purchase. Don’t forget to bring spare batteries with you. Alternatively you could use a paper fan.

    If you’re at home, it will also help to try to keep the room itself cool with an electric fan or air conditioning.

  • Complementary therapies
    Many complementary therapies like those on offer at Breast Cancer Haven can help with alleviating the discomfort caused by hot flushes. For example, acupuncture and reflexology. To begin your free programme of complementary support, simply get in touch with your local centre or book online.

    You could also join an ear acupuncture, tai chi, qi gong, gentle yoga or mindfulness classes, all of which help to ease the intensity of hot flushes.

  • Sip cold drinks and try to reduce consumption of hot drinks, alcohol and hot foods.
    We know this may be a tricky one for some people, but reducing how much coffee, tea and alcohol you drink (or even cutting it out altogether) can reduce discomfort during hot flushes. Substitute them instead for cool drinks like water or maybe a cooling vegetable juice like cucumber and celery to keep cool during the day. Avoid hot and spicy food like curries which also add a lot heat into the body.

  • Wear layers of loose, light clothing
    When a hot flush starts, you’ll want to take action as soon as possible. This is why we recommend wearing layers of loose and light cotton clothing so that you can easily and quickly remove a layer or two when needed. Synthetic clothing tends to be clinging and can make you feel hotter if tight.

  • Cooling off at night
    Consider using a cooling pad or pillow if you’re prone to night sweats. These can easily be purchased online and are particularly helpful for keeping cool during those hot summer nights. You might like to take a cool shower before going to bed or use a fan in the bedroom at night.

  • Avoid things that you know cause hot flushes
    As you get to know yourself and what causes your hot flushes, you can gradually take action to avoid places or situations that trigger them. For example, it is common for heightened emotions to begin a hot flush so do your best to reduce your stress levels by not rushing, leaving plenty of time when travelling on public transport, wearing layers and carrying some water with you.

If you’re struggling to manage

Besides the discomfort they cause, hot flushes are usually harmless and symptoms usually get better over time. However, if you’re consistently struggling with flushes or are experiencing additional symptoms such as weakness, fatigue or feeling generally unwell, then we advise that you talk to your GP or ring your local Breast Cancer Haven centre to speak to one of our breast care nurses.