It’s one thing to wake up covered in a layer of sweat when you’re in the throes of a cold (or a nightmare), but it’s another thing entirely when there seems to be no reason for your perspiration. Anything that wakes you up can seem scary — and the Google results for night sweats can be terrifying — but your clammy PJs and sheets could be the result of a long list of common habits and ailments, says Daniel Allan, M.D., section head of family medicine at the Cleveland Clinic Westlake Family Health Center.
If you’re worried (or annoyed) enough to see a doctor, one of the first, basic things they’d ask about is how warm you keep your bedroom and what you sleep in and under. You could be bundling yourself up too well in a home that’s too hot. Or your bedding and thermostat situation could be fine, but you could be routinely doing things before bed that raise your core body temp, like working out, eating spicy food, or drinking caffeine or alcohol.
It’s also worth considering your reproductive state: Are you currently with child or approaching menopause? Women are naturally warmer during these times, so it would be pretty normal for someone who’s pregnant or having hot flashes to also have night sweats. Same goes for anyone who sweats a lot to begin with — if you use really heavy-duty or even prescription antiperspirant for hyperhidrosis, sweaty sheets probably wouldn’t set off any alarm bells.
Commonly used medications which can cause night sweats include SSRI antidepressants like Prozac, Paxil, Celexa, and Lexapro, Allan says, as well as Wellbutrin and Effexor, which are different types of antidepressants. (He’s also seen patients who have excessive daytime sweating from these drugs.)
People with diabetes who take blood-sugar-lowering drugs are also fairly likely to wake up damp. Their sugar levels can bottom out overnight and as their body works to make more glucose, they have an “acute stress reaction” with a side of night sweats. Disrupted breathing during an episode of snoring-induced sleep apnea can cause a similar, sweaty stress response. And heads up, men: Viagra and Cialis can also cause perspiration, perhaps because of increased blood flow.
If none of these explanations apply, and you’re sweating more frequently or enough that it’s affecting your sleep, you should get checked out. Doubly so if you have other symptoms like fever, chills, unexplained weight loss, or unusual fatigue, he says. Night sweats can happen in people with certain cancers like leukemia or lymphoma, or infections like tuberculosis or HIV, so you’d want your doctor to rule out those conditions. If the sweating bothers you enough that you’re coming in specifically to talk about it — versus, say, mentioning it in an annual check-up — Dr. Allan knows that you’ve probably Googled it and you might be freaked, especially after seeing the C-word.
“Everybody Googles, and part of what we [as doctors] do is listen to what they’re concerned about and try to gather the additional information that we need to make an intelligent decision,” he says.
If you got yourself worked up, you may as well get some answers. “It doesn’t mean you have to do a lot of tests, but with a thorough history and a detailed exam and, sometimes, some very basic lab work, you can rule out the vast majority of problems. And then you can get a good night’s rest without worrying.”
Who knows? Maybe all you need to do is keep one foot outside of your covers.