The other night I woke up in bed hot and sweating like the proverbial pig. Because this unpleasant and unexpected condition almost never interrupts my slumbers, I decided to look into the why’s and wherefore’s behind night sweats: what causes them and what can be done to prevent them?
Here’s what I found out.
First, the Mayo Clinic says that night sweats (also called sleep hyperhidrosis) are “repeated episodes of extreme perspiration that may soak your nightclothes or bedding and are related to an underlying medical condition or illness.”
Since I’ve only experienced one recent episode of overnight overheating, I may not actually have “night sweats” – I had a “night sweat.” Still, the fact that repeated occurrences might signal a more serious health problem is a cause for concern.
The Mayo Clinic agrees with me. There might be nothing at all wrong – my heavy winter blankets may have been the culprits. In fact, sleep hyperhidrosis affects less than 3 percent of the population – 2.8 percent, to be exact.
Let’s be crystal clear here: night sweating is profuse perspiration that soaks your nightwear and dampens the linens enough to launder them.
Perspiration is the human body’s natural defense mechanism to prevent overheating. The hypothalamus region in the brain controls body temperature and controls the activation of over 2 million sweat glands whose sole purpose is to keep us at optimal performance temperature.
As water released as sweat evaporates from the surface of the skin, it releases heat energy. This energy loss is what cools down the body.
Other health conditions that resemble nights sweats are hot flashes and flushing. Hot flashes can happen during both the day or night. A sudden, strong, warm feeling moves from the chest or arms upward to the face. Flushing is like all-body blushing and occurs when the body temperature rises quickly, turning the skin red or pink (rosy).
Waking up during the middle of your sleep cycle with drenching sweat is certainly uncomfortable. But when coupled with fever, weight loss, localized pain, cough, or diarrhea, it’s time to visit a healthcare practitioner to find out what’s really going on.
It turns out that true night sweats can be caused by a wide variety of factors. They are a common side effect of certain medications:
- Acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol)
- Blood sugar boosters (hypoglycemic drugs)
- Cancer-treating hormones
The Mayo Clinic indicates that quite a few medical conditions can produce night sweats as well:
- Anxiety disorders
- Autoimmune disorders
- Autonomic neuropathy (autonomic nerves damage)
- Brucellosis (a bacterial infection)
- Carcinoid syndrome (a type of cancerous intestinal tumor)
- Drug addiction or withdrawal (alcohol, opioids, cocaine, cannabis, benzodiazepines)
- Endocarditis (infection of the inner lining of the heart)
- Hodgkin’s lymphoma (Hodgkin’s disease)
- Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid)
- Myelofibrosis (bone marrow disorder)
- Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
- Osteomyelitis (bone infection)
- Parkinson’s disease
- Pheochromocytoma (a rare adrenal gland tumor)
- Pyogenic abscess (a pus-filled cavity caused by an infection)
- Sleep disorders (e.g., obstructive sleep apnea)
- Syringomyelia (a fluid-filled cyst in the spinal cord)
- Thyroid disease
As you can see, there are many reasons why you might be experiencing night sweats and some of them are quite severe, medically speaking.
Women aged 50 and over going through perimenopause and menopause (“the change,” when menstrual cycles cease) are prime candidates for night sweats.
During perimenopause, which typically affects women aged 40 to 50, the female ovary (reproductive organ) releases fewer estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone hormones. Menstruation becomes irregular.
Perimenopause naturally transitions older women into menopause. Clinically, menopause is diagnosed after 12 months in a row with no menstrual period. The average age of menopause is 51.
If you have children who often wake up drenched in sweat, don’t panic. Before you rush off to the doctor’s office, try dressing them in lighter pajamas, remove heavy bedcovers and substitute with light-weight blankets, and lower the room temperature.
If these solutions don’t work – for adults, as well as children – and the condition continues for a week or more, make a medical appointment to make sure the night sweats aren’t a symptom of a much more serious medical disease.