By: Howard LeWine, M.D., Harvard Health Publishing
Q: Over the last couple of months, I developed night sweats. I am a 45 year old male and consider myself healthy. My wife says it has a cheesy smell. She is worried that I have a serious medical condition. What may be causing this?
A: Night sweats are very common and most often the cause is not serious. Several large studies have found that anywhere from 30% to 40% of the general population report at least occasional night sweats.
The cheesy smell also is not unusual. Some Swiss researchers actually studied the smell of sweat in men and women. Sweaty men tended to smell like cheese, while sweaty women smelled like onions or grapefruit.
When a man experiences new night sweats, I start by asking about the temperature of the bedroom and the number and type of blankets used. Assuming that this is not the issue, I would next want to know if you routinely soak through your bed clothes, have fevers during the day, and if you have been losing weight without trying.
Night sweats accompanied by fever and weight loss always require a full medical evaluation. You could have an infection, a non-infectious inflammatory disorder, or cancer.
If your energy level is normal and you don’t have fever or weight loss, a serious cause is less likely. But some other possibilities should be considered:
- Sleep apnea — especially if you snore, are sleepy during the day, or both
- A side effect of a medication, herb or supplement
- Low blood sugar (more likely in a person taking medicine for diabetes)
- An overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism). Usually there would be additional symptoms, such as weight loss despite a good appetite, rapid heartbeat, sweating during the day, and feeling jittery
- A dramatic fall in testosterone level, such as from prostate cancer therapy
- Other rare hormonal disorders
You should see a medical professional to evaluate your symptoms. In the meantime, here are some things you can try to decrease the sweats:
- Keep the bedroom cool and open a window.
- Avoid spicy food, especially at night.
- Avoid alcohol for a while.
- Get up, towel off, and change bedclothes immediately as needed.
Quite often, no specific cause for night sweats is discovered. In these cases, the sweats usually go away on their own.
(Howard LeWine, M.D., is an internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. For additional consumer health information, please visit www.health.harvard.edu.)
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