Night Sweats as a Symptom of HIV

feet kicked out from under bed covers
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Perspiration is the body's natural response whenever it is overheated, emotionally or physically stressed, or impacted by a disease-causing agent.

In some people, this can occur spontaneously and without apparent reason (a condition called hyperhidrosis). In others still, it occurs specifically and profusely at night. This is something we call "night sweats" or, more specifically, sleep hyperhidrosis.

What Are Night Sweats?

Night sweats occur frequently in people with HIV, most often in later stages of untreated disease (when the CD4 count is below 200 cells/mL). They manifest with profuse, drenching perspiration with no apparent cause and, while they themselves are harmless, night sweats can be indicative of an underlying medical condition which may or may not be serious. 

Night sweats differ from regular perspiration in that they occur without exercise and almost entirely when sleeping. Furthermore, they can be extremely profuse, soaking through bedclothes, bed sheets and even blankets.

Causes

There are numerous possible causes for night sweats, ranging from common hormonal changes in women to more severe manifestations of HIV infection.

It's important to note, however, that night sweats alone—without other symptoms such as fever, weight loss or diarrhea—are not a common manifestation of HIV. Night sweats do, however, warrant investigation, as well as an HIV test should you be at risk of infection.

Causes of night sweats can, among other things, include:

HIV infection does cause night sweats, especially during the acute illness that takes place with seroconversion (the period during which an antibody becomes evident in the blood).

Night sweats are almost always accompanied by other symptoms of HIV including fever, diarrhea, weight loss, enlarged lymph nodes, and joint pain, and rarely (if ever) occur as a lone symptom of HIV.

How to Relieve Night Sweats

While there is no way to eliminate night sweats without treating the underlying cause, certain steps can be taken to identify the problem. Start by asking yourself:

  • Are you having sleep problems, such as breathing difficulties or night terrors? Sleep disorders can often contribute to drenching night sweats.
  • What medicines are you taking? Are there any that you are taking (or combinations you've started taking) that coincide with the night sweats?
  • Are you a heavy drinker? While this is a subjective question in some ways, heavy drinking can be roughly defined as having more than two drinks per night.
  • Do you have any condition that might cause a hormonal imbalance, either diagnosed or suspected? Pregnancy and menopause in women? Low blood sugar in diabetics? Hyperthyroidism?
  • When did the night sweats start? Do they happen frequently or just occasionally? Is your entire body soaked or just parts of your body?
  • Are there any other physical or emotional signs or symptoms you may have noticed recently, even minor ones?

Be sure to share these thoughts with your doctor, some of which may help pinpoint the likely cause of the night sweats.

And while you're at it, consider taking an HIV test if you haven't done so. Currently in the U.S., it is recommended that all Americans age 15 to 65 be given a once-off HIV test as part of a routine doctor's visit. Rapid in-home HIV tests are also available for purchase at most major chain drug stores.

What to Do If You Awaken With Night Sweats

The worst thing about night sweats is they can be so uncomfortable and unnerving. If you awaken in the middle of the night soaked in perspiration, here are a few things you can do:

  • Take a cool bath or shower and change into fresh bedclothes.
  • Change your bedding. If the night sweats are persistent, use a waterproof underpad to protect your mattress from being saturated.
  • Adjust the room temperature. If the weather permits, open a bedroom window or use a fan to circulate air. Be careful, however, to avoid a chill. While you should make every effort to keep yourself comfortable, you shouldn't try to "treat" your night sweats by sleeping in an overly chilled, air-conditioned environment.

If your night sweats are severe or increasing in frequency, they may be indicative of a life-threatening illness. Be sure contact your doctor without delay so that investigations can be performed to identify and treat the underlying cause.

The presence of night sweats has no direct correlation to disease progression or life expectancy in people with HIV. Rather, night sweats may suggest an underlying condition that may have poor health outcomes.

The bottom line is this: any person with unexplained night sweats should seek immediate medical care. Do not self-diagnosed or dismiss your symptoms as there is no such thing as "normal" night sweats. Get it checked today, if only for the peace of mind.

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