Hyperhidrosis: When Excessive Sweating Is a Medical Condition

By Lily Puckett

Hyperhidrosis is a condition in which the body sweats more than is necessary. Humans have to sweat – it cools off the body, and helps maintain body temperature. But excessive sweating, to a clinical degree, doesn’t serve this purpose. Generally localized in a few areas, such as the palms, head, or underarms, the condition can cause discomfort, embarrassment, and make life difficult. But the estimated 2.8% of people in the US who have hyperhidrosis are working with a treatable condition.

It’s unclear what causes your nerves to signal your body to sweat more than needed, and dermatologists are still pursuing the answer. In most people, hyperhidrosis looks like a breakthrough of visible sweat. The skin can turn soft and white and sometimes peel.

There are two types of hyperhidrosis: the first is focal, which means it affects one or a few parts of the body, on one side. The second is a more generalized version. The excessive sweating can occur at random, regardless of time of day, temperature, or activity. It can also be experienced as a pattern, for example, a person with hyperhidrosis may experience significant sweating every morning upon waking.

Hyperhidrosis isn’t typically associated with body odor. Often associated with sweat, odor isn't associated with all kinds of sweat. There are two types of sweat glands: eccrine glands and apocrine glands. Apocrine glands produce a fluid that, when it comes in contact with the bacteria on our skin, creates what we think to be the smell of sweat. These glands are found in the armpits and groin region, and produce the kind of sweat consumed by body odor-causing bacteria on our skin, but these aren’t the sweat glands associated with hyperhidrosis.

Instead, scientists tie the excessive sweating to overactive eccrine glands. Located in the soles of the feet, palms, cheeks, forehead, and armpits, these glands produce typically odorless sweat.

Hyperhidrosis can be a cause of several conditions, including intense psychological or emotional stress, cancer, infections, metabolic disorders, and diseases such as diabetes. Outside factors like excessive heat or certain foods can also bring on episodes. But many people probably associate the condition with menopause. And for good reason: the majority of people who go through menopause will experience hyperhidrosis in some way, often referred to as a “hot flash.”

To assess whether or not sweating is hyperhidrosis or just old-fashioned sweating, a visit to the doctor might be in order. A doctor might run a series of tests, including thyroid function tests and blood glucose samples, to rule out a more severe condition. To determine whether or not the sweating really is excessive, doctors rely on more localized tests, like a starch-iodine test. In this, iodine is applied to the sweaty area, and then starch is sprinkled over it. If the solution turns a specific color, that part of the body is producing more sweat than it needs.

Handling hyperhidrosis in your daily life comes down to preparation. Keeping extra clothes with you is an easy way to get past an episode quickly. You should see a doctor if dizziness or light-headedness occurs, or if night sweats begin. For menopause, hormone therapy treatment is available. Above all, patience and acceptance are key – sweat happens. And always remember that you are never alone.

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