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The information on this page was reviewed and approved by
Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science at CTCA.

This page was updated on September 21, 2021.

Cancer-related hot flashes and night sweats

It’s hard enough going through cancer treatments—but now you’re also finding yourself flushing and getting hot throughout the day. Or maybe you’re waking at night drenched in sweat. Hot flashes and night sweats may become a common occurrence when you’re a cancer patient.

Below learn more about why this happens and what you can do to manage these symptoms.

Sweating is the natural way that the body regulates temperature. It cools itself by releasing heat through your skin. Hot flashes, the sudden spreading of warmth over your face, neck and upper chest, are very different from run-of-the-mill sweating. The warmth may make you flush, turn red and you may start to sweat.

The intensity of a hot flash varies from person to person. Usually, they last a few minutes and you may find yourself getting them a few times a week to several times a day. They may happen at any point during the day and at night while you’re sleeping. Hot flashes that happen at night are known as night sweats. If you have severe episodes of hot flashes and night sweats, you may have trouble sleeping. While most people feel warmth throughout their body and sweat, other people may have chills.

Why do they happen when you have cancer?

Researchers think hot flashes occur in women because of a decrease in estrogen and progesterone (also known as hormone fluctuations). This is most obvious in menopause when the ovaries start to decrease their production of hormones. Some cancer treatments may place women into a medically-induced menopausal state. This could be from radiation or chemotherapy, or it could happen if you have surgery to remove your ovaries. The removal of ovaries puts women in permanent menopause.

Men who have surgery to remove their testicles as part of prostate cancer treatment may experience hot flashes. This may also happen if a man is taking estrogen or gonadotropin-releasing hormone (put out by the testicles to make testosterone).

Certain medications given for cancer treatment may be another factor. One example is tamoxifen, a medication used to treat hormone receptor-positive breast cancer. People taking steroids as part of their treatment plan may also experience hot flashes as a side effect.

How can I manage hot flashes and night sweats?

Hot flashes and night sweats may be short-lived, happening only as long as you’re being treated for cancer, or they may continue after treatments. The good news is there are plenty of ways to try and manage this bothersome side effect.

It may be a good idea to keep a journal of triggers that you notice so that you may avoid certain things making your hot flashes worse.

Incorporating a few lifestyle changes into your daily routine—like the ones below—may also help minimize hot flashes.

  • Keep yourself cool: It may seem obvious, but the cooler your body is, the fewer chances you have of a hot flash happening because even small rises in temperature can bring one on. Dress in layers so that you may easily remove clothing when you get too warm. Keep your room cool by using a fan, running the air conditioner, or opening a window. Something you may already be doing that also works is sleeping with one leg out of the covers.
  • Avoid certain foods and drinks: Alcohol, caffeine and spicy food are triggers for some people. If you find hot flashes happen after eating or drinking one of these, it’s probably a good idea to steer clear of them.
  • Use cotton bed sheets and clothing items: Cotton is breathable, helps wick away sweat from your body, and keeps you cooler in warm weather compared with other fabrics. Sleep on cotton sheets at night if you’re prone to night sweats, as opposed to polyester.
  • Drink cold water: If you can tolerate it, sip cold water when you’re having a hot flash or when you start to feel warm. Consider keeping a glass of cold water on your nightstand to drink if you wake up feeling hot. Even a cool shower before bed may provide relief.
  • Use cooling products: Certain products may help, such as cooler packs to place on the back of your neck, or cooling pillows to sleep on at night. You could also purchase a small handheld fan to use throughout the day, as needed. There are even ones you may wear around your neck, so you always have one close by.

Some integrative therapies that help patients cope with stress and anxiety—including yoga, acupuncture, relaxation techniques and cognitive behavioral therapy—may also help manage hot flashes, along with other strategies.

Are there medications that help reduce hot flashes?

If you’re having a hard time managing your hot flashes at home, you may want to ask your doctor about medications. If your hot flashes are a result of your body being put into medical menopause, your care team may treat you with some form of hormone therapy, because estrogen is the main hormone given to manage symptoms of menopause. However, not everyone can take estrogen replacements. Some cancers, like receptor-positive breast cancer, are sensitive to estrogen, so the replacement drugs may worsen the disease. In some people, estrogen therapy may actually increase the risk of breast cancer.

If you don’t want to, or can’t, take hormones, other medications may be effective. The antidepressant paroxetine is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat hot flashes. Patients typically receive a lower dose for hot flashes than for treating depression. Some blood pressure medications and Gabapentin®, which is used to control seizures, have been shown to help, too.

Hot flashes and night sweats may be distressing, especially if the hot flashes happen in public or at inopportune times. It’s uncomfortable, and if it’s happening several times a day, it may wear on you after a while. The good news is there are many ways to manage both of these, whether it’s through home remedies or medical treatments. Hopefully, these bothersome side effects will go away once your treatments have finished, but if not, know there is support available. Keep your care team informed of your side effects, and together you may create a plan to manage the hot flashes and night sweats.

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