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Dealing with sweating

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This page tells you about sweating and cancer. There is information about

 

Sweating and cancer

Sweating can be a symptom of cancer, or may be due to cancer treatment. It can be very distressing. It can also be embarrassing if you are in a social situation. But there are things you can do to help. And your doctor may be able to prescribe medicines to control it.

Sweating is how our bodies keep cool. We have sweat glands in the skin over most parts of our body. They are in the layer of the skin called the dermis. The nerve cells in the dermis control sweating.

Although we don’t realise it, we are actually constantly sweating. The amount of sweat we make depends on

  • What we are doing
  • Our emotional state
  • The temperature around our body

We sweat to keep cool and will sweat more when

  • It is hot
  • We exercise
  • We are nervous, angry or upset
  • We are ill
  • We go through the menopause (women only)
  • We take medicines that cause sweating
 

Causes of sweating

When you have cancer, things that may cause sweating include

Infection

Infection is one of the most common causes of sweating in people who have cancer. Infection can give you a high temperature and your body sweats to try and reduce it. Treating the infection can control or stop the sweating.

The cancer itself

Some types of cancer cause sweating and flushing of the skin. Doctors don’t fully understand why this is, but it may be due to the body fighting the cancer.

The types of cancer that sometimes cause sweating include

People with advanced cancer of any type may also have sweating. Researchers at St Christopher’s Hospice in London found that at least 16 out of every 100 people (16%) with advanced cancer have this symptom.

Hormone changes

Changes in hormone levels can cause hot flushes and sweats. Your hormone levels may change because of the cancer itself, or because of treatment such as surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy or hormone therapy.

Treatment for breast cancer can put women into an early menopause. For some women, this causes hot flushes and sweats. Women who have already had their menopause can have hot flushes again when they start hormone treatment. You can find tips on dealing with hot flushes in our living with breast cancer section.

Men can have hot flushes and sweating when they have hormone treatment for prostate cancer or breast cancer, because it reduces the amount of testosterone in the body.

Recent research is helping us to understand why changes in sex hormone levels cause hot flushes and sweats. This is needed in order to find better treatment for these symptoms.

Medicines and cancer drugs

Sweating and hot flushes can be a side effect of some drug treatments, including chemotherapy and morphine. To find out more about the side effects of individual cancer drugs have a look in our cancer treatment section.

 

Treatment for sweating

The treatment you have will depend on the cause of your sweating.

If you have an infection, antibiotics will treat the infection and stop the sweating.

If your sweating is due to cancer, treating the cancer can get rid of the sweating.

If you have sweating because treatment has changed your hormone levels, it may settle down after a few weeks or months, once your body is used to the treatment.

Talk to your doctor or nurse about your sweats. There are different treatments you can try. Some drugs help to cut down the number of hot flushes and sweats you have, and can make them less severe

  • Clonidine (a blood pressure and migraine medicine) can help women with breast cancer
  • Anti depressants such as paroxetine or venlafexine
  • Gabapentin (an epilepsy drug) can help women with breast cancer
  • Progestogen (a hormone) can help men with prostate cancer
  • Cimetidine (a drug to reduce stomach acid) can reduce sweating caused by morphine.

All these treatments have side effects. It is important to talk to your doctor about them before you start, and discuss how long you should take them. We need more research to find out the best way of reducing hot flushes and sweats.

People sometimes use complementary medicines to help control sweating. Research has had varying results so far. There is information about complementary therapies for hot flushes in the sex hormone symptoms and cancer section.

 

Things you can do to reduce sweating

  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine as this dilates the blood vessels in the skin and makes you sweat more
  • Avoid spicy foods
  • Avoid eating large meals
  • Keep your room at a cool, comfortable temperature
  • Have a fan nearby at night
  • Wear layers of clothes so you can easily take off or put on a layer to adjust your temperature
  • Use layers of light bedclothes so you can take some off if you get hot
  • If you are sweating a lot at night, lie on a towel to soak up moisture and keep your sheets dry
  • Wear cotton clothes, as they absorb sweat better than man made materials and don’t make you feel cold when they get wet
  • Drink plenty (at least 2.5 to 3 litres a day) as you can lose a lot of fluid in sweat
  • Have plenty of warm baths or showers
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Updated: 5 March 2014