Sharon Brown fans herself to help her with hot flashes at her desk in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Conventional wisdom has it that hot flashes, bursts of intense warmth and sweating that afflict up to 80 percent of middle-aged women, last a few years. But they can actually last as long as 14 years, a study published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine found.

In a racially, ethnically and geographically diverse group of 1,449 women with frequent hot flashes or night sweats - the largest study to date - the median length of time women endured symptoms was 7.4 years. So, while half the women were affected for less than that time, half had symptoms longer - some for at least 14 years, researchers reported. Overall, African-American and Hispanic women experienced hot flashes significantly longer than white or Asian women.

And in a particularly unfair hormonal twist, the study found that the earlier hot flashes started the longer they lasted. For women who got hot flashes before they stopped menstruating, the hot flashes were likely to continue for years after menopause, longer than for women whose symptoms only began when their periods had stopped.

And many women fall into the early bird category. In this study, only a fifth of cases started after menopause. One in eight women began getting hot flashes while still having regular periods. For two-thirds of women, they began in perimenopause, when periods play hide and seek but have not completely disappeared.

“If you don’t have hot flashes until you’ve stopped menses, then you won’t have them as long,” said Nancy Avis, a professor of social sciences and health policy at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and the study’s first author. “If you start later it’s a shorter total duration, and it’s shorter from the last period on.”

Researchers found significant differences between ethnic groups. African-Americans reported the longest-lasting symptoms, continuing for a median of 10.1 years - twice the median duration of Asian women’s symptoms. The median for Hispanic women was 8.9 years; for non-Hispanic whites, 6.5 years.

Mary Hairston, 53, tried acupuncture in another study by Avis and colleagues, and found it helped. Before that, Hairston said, “every night I would just wake up, dripping wet.”

Now, when she starts sweating at the Italian restaurant where she waitresses, “I go stand in the cooler,” she said. “I used to get cold all the time and I would say I couldn’t wait to have hot flashes. Well, I got over that real quick.”

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