The Sweaty Side of Drugs

The Sweaty Side of Drugs

Side effects from medications can sometimes be just as uncomfortable and miserable as the condition for which a person is taking them. It’s one of the challenging Catch-22 situations of living with a chronic illness; you have to take medications because you’re sick, yet invariably some of those medications also cause sickness. Side effects are far from fun to deal with, and they can often pop up at any time.

In a previous article, I wrote about my own embarrassing RA side effect of new and increased facial hair due to long-term prednisone/steroid use. Well, here’s another rather “unladylike” symptom or side effect that I’ve been dealing with for months that’s also a bit shameful to share: EXCESSIVE SWEATING.

The episodes of extreme sweating from my head, neck, and face have also been accompanied by flushing (a bright-red heat rash that spreads across my chest, neck, and cheeks) and with what I can only describe as “hot flashes”–a feeling as though my entire body is majorly overheating, and like I stepped into a sauna. A friend of mine who also has RA and seems to be suffering from something similar, described it as a feeling of “cooking from the inside.” To say these hot flashes/episodes (they actually stick around a lot longer than a “flash”) are uncomfortable would be a gross understatement. They verge on being unbearable, especially when accompanied by sweat literally falling in drops from my face and my hair becoming wringing wet in a matter of minutes. Disgusting.

So what’s causing these strange symptoms? Good question. It’s a question I’ve been desperately trying to find the answer to for months, ever since the hot flash/sweating episodes started seriously interfering with my life sometime around early summer (I think). I began having odd night sweats in late April when I was in New Jersey for a conference and then moved to Brooklyn, NY. I would wake up with the lower back of my hair and the collar of my T-shirt wet and clammy from sweat. I found it uncomfortable, gross, seemingly abnormal, and disturbing. However, I brushed off these night sweats thinking that maybe I was just too warm during the night or that my body was trying to adjust to the stress of recent traveling.


As April and May weather began to transition to the sticky, stifling summer heat that New York City is notorious for, I noticed my sweating episodes growing more frequent. However, it seemed that nearly everyone was sweating in NYC, and I chalked up my sweaty self to summer heat and humidity. Yet I felt that something wasn’t quite right. Even when I would go into an air-conditioned building, I would still be dying of heat and perspiring profusely.

One embarrassing day I had an interview with a temporary agency in Midtown Manhattan and no matter how many tissues I used, I couldn’t stop the streams of sweat from rolling down my face, soaking the bottom edge of my hair. What was going on? Nerves? I’ve been a nervous wreck since birth, practically, but I had never dealt with anything like this before.

The office assistant left me alone in a room with the standard papers to fill out and as soon as she closed the door I leaped out of my chair to grab another handful of tissues to wipe off my sopping face. I then leaned over the form I was filling out and to my horror and disgust, I saw drops of sweat from my hair splash onto the piece of paper. Oh, no! I just sweat on my job application! I immediately picked up the paper and began fanning it back and forth, praying that the assistant wouldn’t come back into the room. This is crazy, I thoughtSomething must be wrong. Right?

September 1, 2015, I escaped from New York and wearily moved back to Minnesota for a variety of complex reasons: a severely painful, multi-joint RA flare-up that began in July; health insurance complications; financial problems; lack of employment; physical and mental exhaustion and sickness. I was a mess. And I was still sweating for no reason, even after I had left the suffocating subway stations, and the heat waves that never seemed to end in New York that summer.

When I was back at home, relaxing in much calmer Minnesota, even small amounts of activity would immediately trigger one of my “episodes.” Light cleaning, such as picking things up from the floor, gathering clothes to carry to the washing machine, or vacuuming for a few minutes would cause my body temperature to soar to a point of sweltering hotness and my face, head, and hair to start sweating. Even going into the bathroom to fix my hair with a brush and curling iron would cause beads of perspiration to immediately cover my forehead, upper lip, cheeks, and the back of my neck. Looking into the mirror, I could see again the usual red splotchy flushing creeping across my neck, upper chest, and cheeks.

Every time an episode occurred, dread and anxiety would fill me as I feared I had now developed some new, rare auto-immune disease, or something worse. I quickly realized that searching online was a bad idea (I most certainly had cancer, of course) and I couldn’t find any reliable information anyway. So, I began making appointments with my doctors: primary/internist, rheumatologist, endocrinologist, gynecologist, psychologist, pain specialist, pharmacist. Many appointments and conversations were had, tests were done, referrals were made, shoulders were shrugged–yet the sweaty days dragged on, mystery unsolved.

After several uninformative doctor appointments and tests that all came back fine and negative, I was left even more uncertain and worried than before–would I have to live this way for the rest of my life? Constantly sweaty?

Thankfully NO (I hope). The final medical appointment I had among the list of doctor visits was with a pharmacist at my primary care clinic. Together we went over my long list of prescription medications to see if any of them could be causing my symptoms. Relief flooded over me as she quickly told me she was confident that one of my medications was the culprit. Which drug? Not an RA medication, but an anti-depressant, Celexa (an SSRI), that I’ve been taking for about seven years. The pharmacist went on to explain that I had probably developed a sensitivity to serotonin, which can come on even after having taken the drug for a while. Whew! I didn’t have Weird Sweating Cancer or any other kind of new disease. I immediately relaxed with relief but then quickly asked her, “So how do we make these awful symptoms stop?” She answered that I needed to immediately taper off of the Celexa and switch to a different medication.

Today, this is where I am: tapering down and eventually off of the Celexa while trying a new anti-depressant/anti-anxiety/anti-pain drug and hoping the tapering overlap will go smoothly. As I write this, it’s only been a week since I began the new treatment plan, and so far I feel pretty okay. But I am nervous about having to deal with uncomfortable withdrawal side effects, especially since I’m also trying to taper off of prednisone and Vicodin at the same time. If you talk to me and I seem a little “crazier” and nuttier (or crankier) than usual, this is probably why!

For many years I resisted taking any kind of anti-depressants or mood-stabilizing drugs, because I was afraid of how they would change the chemicals in my brain and therefore who I was as a person. I was also afraid of possible side effects and I just didn’t like the idea of anybody or anything messing with my mind. However, one winter during a severely depressive time of my life, I relented and decided to try Celexa for the first time. Happily, I discovered that it actually helped to lift my mood and deal with life better and I still felt like myself–until about a year and a half ago when it didn’t seem to be working anymore and the very mild, sporadic sweating episodes began.

Sadly there is still stigma attached to talking publicly about taking certain medications, especially anti-depressants and narcotic painkillers. I think there are also stigmas associated with openly admitting that you have a chronic illness and chronic pain. Or admitting that you deal with medication side effects that physically affect your appearance or mood: prednisone weight gain (giant belly, neck hump, fat face), hair loss, skin problems, inflamed eyes, ugly shoes, uncontrollable sweating, anxiety, depression, mood swings, etc.

The good news is that the more we talk about these things, the more we can learn from each other. I’m willing to bet that I’m not the only person with RA who also takes medication for depression and anxiety, and I’m also probably not the only person who has suffered from these sweating/hot flash symptoms. Waiting to get an accurate diagnosis can be excruciating and harder than dealing with the condition itself; it helps tremendously to know that you’re not alone while you’re going through it. I hope that by writing this article, and exposing the sweaty, embarrassing nightmare I’ve been living for the last several months, that others might find some comfort and relief too.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The RheumatoidArthritis.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

Comments

View Comments (17)
  • ThatsLucy
    2 years ago

    OK, so I also read that the sweating can be from the pituitary gland or one of the thalamus in menopause w/RA or any other auto-immune disease. One of you mentioned feeling better after taking Oxybutynin, one didn’t. One sd. she felt better after stopping anti-depressants. I guess I’ll read all my info sheets from all my meds to search for “sweating” and go from there. I even once suggested to my Women’s Hlth. dr. why not just inject whichever area causes sweating w/BOTOX?! She laughed and sd., “Now that’s thinking outside the box!”. Wait a minute…why not?! Seriously! I think I’ll do some research…Best Wishes Gals…

  • Angela Lundberg author
    2 years ago

    Hello!

    Thank you for your comment and reading my article. I realize that I need to write a follow-up article with my update on my sweating problem. After several months of all the tests I had and feeling like nobody would believe my gut instinct that my sweating was from Vicodin, it turns out that I was right! It was from my off and on use of hydrocodone for pain. For some reason, I developed this sweating side effect that happens whenever I take the drug. I’ve been taking hydrocodone for 3-4 years and I had no problems with sweating when I first began taking it. Why this came on seemingly out of the blue a couple years later, I have no idea. But I’m 100% sure my excessive sweating and “hot flashes” are indeed from the Vicodin. Ugh.

  • leeree
    3 years ago

    Dear Angela everything in your artificial I have Experienced .The sweating crippled me and made me house bound But I have only just now realized after a blood test that I was very low in vitamin D if you check symptoms of low vitamin D Head sweating and body pain are just two of the symptoms since taking 1000mg of vitamin D my sweating is almost gone

  • Norreen Clark
    3 years ago

    Sometimes life bites us right where we don’t need it. I’v been on and off of prednisone for sometime now most medication makes me ill. So your hot spells you are having I have the same thing happen to me and for me the prednisone does it. My hot spells only last a few minutes. Get up around 15 mgs or more of prednisone and it makes my face warm and red and I get a hot feeling all over. Right now I’m having headache and I have not been able to get rid of them since I was on the humira which I stopped on November 18 2015. Looking to see if anyone else has headache from medication. But I have had RA for 36 years and I’m 63 now. I do not like the medication on the market for RA. I do not like being sick. Keep the faith

  • Linda
    3 years ago

    Thank you so much for writing this article, Angela! I’ve had this same exact sweating/ hot flash problem for years! It’s absolutely miserable sometimes! And very embarrassing! I’m a psychologist and have even had my clients ask me if I’m okay. I’ve also gone to every type of physician possible to try to find out why and have not gotten an explanation. I’m not currently on an antidepressant but of course have a long laundry list of RA meds (actemra, mtx, prednisone, Florinef, oxycodone, cyclobenzaprine & zaleplon for severe insomnia, etc.). I’m about to get on doxepin to help with the neurological pathways of chronic pain that don’t go away even when my severe RA is better controlled so I hope that doesn’t make the sweating worse. Did you discover any other culprits or ways to treat it?

    I read a while back that autoimmune disorders can disrupt the hypothalamus temperature regulation but haven’t been able to find much information to corroborate that theory so I’m not surely it’s accurate. In any case, I’m relieved to hear that others also struggle with this. Here’s to feeling cooler (I’m pretend toasting with a tall glass of ice water).

  • calpug223
    3 years ago

    Thank you for the article, I thought the sweaty episodes I went through last summer were just me. I was taking 30 mg of Prednisone a day, Enbrel, and a SSRI inhibitor too. My Internests took me off all meds for weight loss and once I tapered off the Prednisone the sweating episodes disappeared completely.
    I blame the steroids because I am not doing well on Humira and am back on 10 mg of Prednisone a day and the sweat factory is open for business again.
    I will be talking to my doc about Oxybutynin, sounds like a miracle.

  • AdrienneK.
    3 years ago

    Thank you so much for writing about this topic!! I thought I was the only one with this problem!! To make matters worse, 2yrs ago I had breast cancer, after radiation, I was put on a med called Tamoxifen!! My dripping sweat started about a yr ago!!I was told the #1 side effect for Tamoxifen is hot flashes!! So, of course I thought it was from that, & that I would have to put up with it for another 3yrs or so!! Well, now I think I’m going to have the rest of my meds checked, as there’s 14 of them!! But one is an OCD type of med or antidepressant type, Lexapro,maybe that’s my problem!! I stopped it once before, & it was awful,major withdrawal symptoms!! But the unexpected dripping sweat from my head,face,neck & chest is ridiculous!! I even thought it might be stress!! Well, I intend to find out!! Thanks again for your willingness to share your story & help the rest of us!!

  • karenkaye
    3 years ago

    Gee, thanks for talking about sweat AND stigma. I sweat without ssri’s. I just sat down to “wipe myself down” and I started reading your article…ah life has a sense of humor. I just sweat and have those special hot flashes for reasons unknown. And depression and anxiety are companions I bargin with. What to do but cope!
    I feel major stigma because of pain meds…fentanyl (via patch) in my case. People ask me in the pool what the patch is…such nerve….sometimes I’m honest other times not. It depends on my mood and the energy of the person and question. I couldn’t do all I do without the meds. I have a typical long list of syndromes and diseases that I feel stigma about too. I’m guessing that I have to give myself permission for being who I am to counter these stigmas. I send us all love for the holidays….and please let us be gentle with ourselves.

  • ThatsLucy
    2 years ago

    To @karenkaye, I have to take pain meds too, but I never tell people for that reason as well as the fear of someone trying to rob me…know what I mean…yes, please do give yourself permission to be yourself. Just tell them the patch is for inflammation or something like that. That’s your business, not theirs. I get you…hugs.

  • leeree
    3 years ago

    You are correct Linda

  • Linda
    3 years ago

    Lack of Vitamin D can also cause “head sweating” according to one article I read. Something to think about.
    Linda

  • Wonderland
    3 years ago

    Frustration should be a symptom of Chronic Disease! Lol because I feel like that is my Number one problem. Have been taking an ssri for years and have had the sweating problem more than a few times, and have just accepted that depression, pain, and sweating are a part of my life with auto immune diseases. I’ve learned to embrace it and try to use diet, positive thought, acting opposite, humor, lots of showers, among many other strategies to just keep it from being my first thought in the morning and continuing throughout my day. Although my feet are a daily reminder first steps are the hardest! It’s tiring but it makes the days brighter and helps create a more positive outlook.

  • Bobbi Hurd
    3 years ago

    Wahoo! I am not the only odd person around who can sweat while I am standing still. I, too have been embarrassed by “dripping” at inappropriate times. Or trying to curl my hair and hearing a sizzle as I hit a damp spot. Or teaching students, while I know they are wondering what the heck is going on with me. In my other lifetime…pre-RA, fibromyalgia and all the other stupid issues I have, I rarely sweat at all. It is so good to know there are others out there like me. And extremely good to know there just might be relief. I can’t wait to go to the doctor and ask her about the Cymbalta that I have taken for about 7 years to help with the RA pain (not depression but I don’t think the medication cares why I am taking it). I, too, am on Prednisone and many other drugs to make my pain relief cocktail. I hope to find out if Oxybutynin will help with the profuse head sweating…my worst side effect actually. I wonder what new side effect might come with the Oxybutynin. Also wonder if the Cymbalta is indeed keeping my pain at bay such that I don’t want to sacrifice that for the sweating. Such a dilemma. Thanks though, ladies for verify that this has not just been “in my head”.

  • Tresa
    3 years ago

    Angela,
    Your symptoms of breaking out in an incontrollabe sweat sound exactly like mine. By luck of some kind, my husband had the tv on and it was about a lady that was suffering the same and breaking out in a sweat just as you described. It was destroying her quality of life and she just went to bed and gave up. Her husband started searching the Internet and found out the the drug Oxybutynin might help. It did! After seeing this I immediately made an appt with my PCP. I had complained about the sweating to her and other doctors, but they didn’t have a solution. I told her about the TV episode and she wrote me a prescription. It has been a life saver for me. I still get hot flashes but they aren’t as often and I don’t drop in sweat like I used to. I take two to three 5 mg tablets a day. My doctor said that she has helped 5-6 of her other patients with much success and said she had me to thank for that. I would advise anyone with profuse sweating to give it a try. I have RA and thought that it was just another complication that I had to deal with. I take generic Cymbalta , Humira, 10 mg of Predisone and thyroid replacement T3 and T4 due to complete thyroidectomy. Also take medication for anxiety. I am 59, had complete hysterectomy at 45 and I know the difference between the two. I hope you and anyone else who sufferers from this can get the Oxybutynin. I don’t know how I survived without it.

  • Vicki Heckroth
    3 years ago

    I also have these symptoms. I take Cymbalta and abilfy for depression and neuropathy. I can’t handle the pain not the depression when I go off of them. So….in my case I just have to deal with the awful sweating. I also take narcotic pain meds for the pain from RA, spinal stenosis, degenerative disk disease and fibromyalgia as well as PTSD and major clinical depression. I was perfectly healthy and on no meds when my son completed suicide in 2000. Since that time my own health has went steadily down hill. I now take so many meds I am like a walking medicine cabinet. And the stigma is horrible. I have been called a fake to a drug addict and everything else in between. Sometimes I wish those people including family could walk one day in my shoes so they would understand.

  • rhonda
    3 years ago

    I hope you start feeling better soon. I can relate to all these terrible symptoms you are having. Sometimes it is so frustrating and no one seems to understand. Some days you just gotta yell real loud how much you hate this awful disease and it’s not fair. That helps me as well as a pair of tweezers for the hair and a good mosturizer for the rash and the freezer to stick my head in. Good luck.

  • pugpen
    3 years ago

    omg, such a relief to read this article, it helps to know someone else suffers from the same exact thing.I take generic cymbalta which is in the same class as what you take. I’ve been on it for almost 15 yrs & I have repeatedly tried, unsuccessfily, to d/c the drug.The main reason I take it is tx for the peripheral neuropathy I have in both feet & literally cannot walk without this drug, it also helps fibro pain and mood lifter. So it’s pretty important to me, & I don’t feel I can do without it, so guess I’ll have to just deal with the sweating issue’s, but it’s not easy.

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