What are night sweats?
Night sweats are drenching sweats that soak clothes and bedding and disturb sleep. Night sweats occur when blood vessels expand, causing increased blood flow, and then contract. This causes a sudden wave of heat that spreads throughout the body, followed by sweating, reddening of the skin, and rapid heartbeat. Often, the night sweat is followed by a cold chill.
What causes night sweats?
Night sweats are common is women who are going through perimenopause and menopause. Perimenopause is a normal, natural phase of a woman’s life. During this time, a woman’s ovaries produce less estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone, and menstrual periods become irregular. The low or changing levels of estrogen in particular are the cause of night sweats.
Perimenopause usually happens between ages 40 and 50. It is the transition step before menopause. A woman has reached menopause when she hasn’t had a period for 12 months in a row. The average age of menopause is 51.
Are perimenopause and menopause the only causes of night sweats?
No. Night sweats can occur for a variety of reasons and can occur in both women and men. Other health conditions in which night sweats are seen include:
- Infectious diseases, including tuberculosis, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
- Colds, flu, fever
- Bacterial infections, including endocarditis (inflammation of the inner lining of the heart), osteomyelitis (inflammation of bone/bone marrow), pyogenic abscess (pus in the liver)
- Hormonal diseases, including overactive thyroid, diabetes, endocrine tumors
- Substance abuse, including alcohol, heroin, cocaine
- Hyperhidrosis (the body produces too much sweat without any known medical cause)
- Neurologic disorders, including autonomic dysreflexia, autonomic neuropathy (damage to autonomic nerves), syringomyelia (cyst in the spinal cord), stroke
- Panic disorder, anxiety
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD, a digestive disease)
- Obstructive sleep apnea (a sleep disorder)
- Cancer, including leukemia (blood and bone marrow cancer) and lymphoma (blood cell cancer)
- Side effects of cancer treatments, including aromatase inhibitors, tamoxifen, opioids, steroids
- Side effects of other medications, including some antidepressants and diabetes medications, steroids, acetaminophen, aspirin, and high blood pressure drugs
Women who experience other than menopause-related night sweats typically have other symptoms, as well. Only your doctor can determine the cause of your night sweats. Almost all causes are treatable. If you have ongoing night sweats, see your doctor.
Care and Treatment
How are night sweats treated?
Treatment depends on the cause of the night sweats. For menopause-related night sweats, hormone therapy – estrogen alone or with progestin – is one option. Hormone therapy can also help with other symptoms of menopause including bone loss and vaginal dryness. Estrogen replacement therapy should not be used in women with a history of breast cancer. All hormone therapies carry some risks, including blood clots and gallbladder inflammation.
Non-estrogen medications used to treat hot flashes include:
- Megestrol (also used to treat breast and uterine cancers; increase appetite/reverse weight loss)
- Anticonvulsants (also used to control/prevent seizures)
- Clonidine (also used to treat high blood pressure, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, and other conditions)
Non-drug treatments for night sweats from any cause include:
- Wearing loose-fitting, lightweight, cotton pajamas
- Using layered bedding that can be removed as needed during the night
- Turning on a bedroom fan/opening windows
- Sipping cool water throughout the night
- Keeping a cold pack under a pillow, then turning your pillow over to rest your head on a cool surface
- Avoiding common night sweat triggers such as alcohol, spicy foods, caffeine, cigarettes
- De-stressing through deep breathing, relaxation, and exercise
- Undergoing hypnosis to help relax and focus on feeling cool
- Exercising daily. Walking, swimming, dancing, and bicycling are all good choices.
Do menopause-related night sweats ever end?
Night sweats go away after a few years in most women undergoing menopause. Unfortunately, other women may experience night sweats for the rest of their lives. However, the night sweats usually lessen in severity.