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Excessive Sweating: A Sticky Subject

WebMD goes to the experts to find out what may cause this embarrassing yet common condition and what can be done to treat it.
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WebMD Feature

For Crystal Barry, excessive sweating wasn't just a nuisance. It shaped her daily activities, even her personality.

Barry, 24, a student from St. Louis, avoided team sports and crowded events. She never wore tank tops or sheer fabrics and often had to bring extra shirts to school after her first shirt was soaked through with sweat. She shied away from social situations, especially ones involving the opposite sex. "I don't like to be around people if I stink," she tells WebMD. "I get real quiet."

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Scientists aren't sure what causes excessive sweating, but the condition is more common than once believed. A variety of treatments are available, but many people who suffer from excessive sweating never learn about these treatments. In a 2004 study, two-thirds of those who routinely suffered from excessive sweating (known medically as hyperhidrosis) had never talked to a health professional about it.

"This is truly an embarrassing thing for people," says dermatologist Dee Anna Glaser, MD, of Saint Louis University, one of the study authors. Sweat still has "a lot of connotations in our society," including deviousness and poor hygiene, "so you can imagine how someone who sweats excessively feels about themselves and how they fear others feel about them."

 

Excessive Sweating: A Mysterious Condition

Anyone who sweats more than is needed to regulate body temperature is sweating excessively, Glaser says. Those with the condition known as hyperhidrosis sweat excessively from certain areas such as the hands, feet, underarms, or face. The condition often emerges in adolescence but may not be recognized as a problem until a few years later. Based on the 2004 study, Glaser estimates that nearly 8 million Americans -- or nearly 3% of the U.S. population -- suffer from hyperhidrosis.

The sweat glands in people with hyperhidrosis are normal in size, number, and location, Glaser says. "It seems the center inside the brain that normally tells you when to sweat for heat balance is sending signals to sweat excessively from a localized area," she says. "Why that signal is occurring, we don't know." About half of patients have a family history of hyperhidrosis, suggesting a genetic component to the condition, Glaser says.

Often, the sweating episodes have no obvious cause, doctors say. Though hyperhidrosis is not caused by anxiety, anxiety about sweating can cause or exacerbate a sweating episode, Glaser says.

Before treating excessive sweating, Atlanta dermatologist Harold Brody, MD, says he checks for other medical conditions for which sweating is a symptom, such as diabetes and hyperthyroidism. Sweating can also be a side effect of many drugs.

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