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Sweat Test

A sweat test measures the amount of salt chemicals (sodium and chloride) in sweat. It is done to help diagnose cystic fibrosis. Normally, sweat on the skin surface contains very little sodium and chloride. People with cystic fibrosis have 2 to 5 times the normal amount of sodium and chloride in their sweat.

During the sweat test, medicine that causes a person to sweat is applied to the skin (usually on the arm or thigh). The sweat is then collected on a paper or a gauze pad, and the amount of salt chemicals in the paper or gauze is measured in a lab. Generally, chloride (sweat chloride) is measured. See a picture of a sweat test camera.gif.

A sweat test is done on any person suspected of having cystic fibrosis. An initial test may be done as early as 48 hours of age. But a sweat test done during the first month of life may need to be repeated. Younger babies may not produce enough sweat to give reliable test results. Also, younger babies may naturally have lower sweat chloride levels than older babies and children with cystic fibrosis.

Why It Is Done

The sweat test is done to help diagnose cystic fibrosis. It also may be used to test people with a family history of cystic fibrosis and for anyone with symptoms of cystic fibrosis.

How To Prepare

No special preparation is needed before having this test. Your child may eat, drink, and exercise normally before the test. If your child takes any medicines, he or she may take them on the usual schedule.

You may help with the test and stay with your child during the test. If you can't stay, you may want to ask a family member or friend to stay with your child. Bring your child's favorite book or toy to help pass the time while the test is done. See if your child might be able to watch a movie during the test.

Talk with your doctor about any concerns you have regarding the need for the test, its risks, how it will be done, or what the results will mean. To help you understand the importance of this test, fill out the medical test information form(What is a PDF document?). For more information, see the topic Pediatric Preparation for Medical Tests.

How It Is Done

The sweat test is usually done on a baby's right arm or thigh. On an older child or adult, the test is usually done on the inside of the right forearm. Sweat is usually collected and analyzed from two different sites.

  • The skin is washed and dried, then two small gauze pads are placed on the skin. One pad is soaked with a medicine that makes the skin sweat, called pilocarpine. The other pad is soaked with salt water.
  • Other pads called electrodes are placed over the gauze pads. The electrodes are hooked up to an instrument that produces a mild electric current, which pushes the medicine into the skin.
  • After 5 to 10 minutes, the gauze pads and electrodes are removed, and the skin is cleaned with water and then dried. The skin will look red in the area under the pad that contained the medicine.
  • A dry gauze pad, paper collection pad, or special tubing is taped to the red patch of skin. This pad is covered with plastic or wax to prevent fluid loss (evaporation).
  • The new pad will soak up the sweat for up to 30 minutes, then it is removed and placed in a sealed bottle. It is then weighed to measure how much sweat the skin produced, and it is checked to find out how much salt chemical (sodium and/or chloride) the sweat contains. Another testing method collects the sweat into a coil (macroduct technique).
  • After the collection pad is removed, the skin is washed and dried again. The test site may look red and continue to sweat for several hours after the test.

The sweat test usually takes 45 minutes to 1 hour.

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: June 15, 2011
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.

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