If excessive sweating has no underlying medical cause, it’s called primary hyperhidrosis. It happens when excess sweating is not triggered by a rise in temperature or physical activity. Primary hyperhidrosis may be at least partly hereditary.
Everyone sweats. It’s the body’s way of cooling itself down when it gets overheated from exercise or a warm environment. It can also be a side effect of being nervous or afraid. However, if you find yourself sweating a lot when you’re not active or hot, you may have hyperhidrosis, or excessive sweating. Excessive sweating has a number of causes, and while there is no hyperhidrosis cure, getting the proper diagnosis can lead to effective treatments. Find out the primary causes of hyperhidrosis and some of the steps you can take to treat your sweating.
Sweating is the act of secreting fluid from the skin by the sweat (sudoriferous) glands. These are small tubular glands situated within and under the skin (in the subcutaneous tissue). They discharge by tiny openings in the surface of the skin. Sweating is a normal response that helps regulate body temperature. People sweat more when it’s hot outside or when they exercise. Increased sweating can also occur due to emotional states such as anger, fear, nervousness, or embarrassment.
Excessive sweating is referred to as hyperhidrosis, and some people may have a tendency to excessive sweating, known as primary hyperhidrosis. Sweating can also be a symptom of several medical conditions, especially when the sweating is excessive or inappropriate. Many types of infections and cancers are associated with increased sweating that particularly occurs at night. Sweating may accompany hot flashes during the menopausal transition. Damage to the autonomic nerves for any reason, for example, as a result of diabetes, can cause excessive sweating.
Excessive perspiration can manifest itself in several forms, and make you really understand how many sweat glands are on your body (unfortunately). Depending on the sweating symptoms, excess perspiration can be caused by anything from low blood sugar to pregnancy to thyroid issues to medication.
If the excess sweating is due to an underlying medical condition, it’s called secondary hyperhidrosis.
What Is Hyperhidrosis?
Many people have had at least one experience of excessive sweating, perhaps after an intense workout or during times of high stress. For most of us, these instances come and go, and may be only mildly annoying. But for roughly 4.8 percent of people living in the United States, hyperhidrosis, or excessive sweating, is a regular occurrence.
Hyperhidrosis is a condition in which sweating is frequent and hard to control. It’s often visible to others, and for this reason, it can trigger anxiety and make you feel self-conscious.
Fortunately, modern medicine offers a variety of ways to reduce or stop excessive sweating.
Causes of Excessive Sweating
Primary Focal Hyperhidrosis
This is one of the most common causes of excessive sweating, according to Mayo Clinic. The “focal” in the name refers to the focal points of the body where sweat shows up naturally, like the underarms, palms and face. It generally manifests as a symmetrical excess of sweat on the body (for instance, both palms, both soles of the feet, or both sides of the groin will produce too much perspiration). And don’t worry — it’s not a sign of nervousness or of serious illness.
So why does it happen? Unfortunately, science isn’t entirely sure. People who suffer from it don’t have more sweat glands, larger ones, or anything else in their sweat-making bits that could cause this malfunction. The current theory is that it’s a genetically transferred problem in the nervous system that produces a sweat reaction when it’s not actually needed. (It’s known as idiopathic, indicating that we don’t actually know how it happens yet.) The most common manifestation is armpits: one study found that 51% of people with primary hyperhidrosis in America had it under their arms.
Fortunately, there are treatments available for the condition, including the use of very low electrical pulses, medications or even injectable neurotoxins to paralyze sweat glands. However, many people with PFH don’t seek help due of embarrassment. But there’s no need to be: if you’re suffering from PFH and really bothered by it, know that there’s help available.
Secondary hyperhidrosis describes excessive sweating that is caused by an underlying medical condition or as a side effect to a medication. This type of hyperhidrosis is more likely to result in sweating all over the body and often happens at night.
Menopausal hot flashes are well-known to cause excessive sweating. This type of sweating also occurs in the transitional time before menopause called perimenopause. As a woman’s body prepares for menopause, her estrogen levels rise and fall considerably. The hormonal fluctuation causes the sudden onset of a warm feeling and accompanying sweating. The best way to reduce discomfort from menopausal sweating is to dress in layers, find ways to cool yourself down like sitting in front of a fan or opening a window, lowering the thermostat, and eating non-spicy and cool foods and beverages.
Your glow may at least partially be due to a thin sheen of sweat that covers you at all times. “It’s common for pregnant women to notice an increase in how much they sweat,” Dr. Dietz tells Bustle. “That’s because during pregnancy, women can experience hormone changes, increased blood flow, and higher metabolism levels, which all result in a little bit more sweat than usual.” It’s all perfectly normal, though possibly a little unexpected. But know that if you end up constantly mopping your brow during your baby shower, not to worry.
Like menopause, hyperthyroidism disrupts the normal levels of hormones in your body. It occurs when your body produces too much of the hormone thyroxine, which helps to regulate things like your metabolism, body temperature and heart rate. If you have excessive sweating because of hyperthyroidism, you probably also have other symptoms like heart palpitations, sudden loss of weight, heat intolerance, tremors, fatigue, changes in bowel habits or menstrual patterns.
Women are more likely to develop hyperthyroidism. Hyperthyroidism can be serious, leading to heart problems, brittle bones and eye problems. It is important that you see a doctor for your excessive sweating — it could be caused by an overactive thyroid. Thankfully, hyperthyroidism is easily treated and managed with medication.
This is another potential cause of excess sweat among pregnant women: pregnancy kicks the thyroids of some women into overactivity, which is associated with high sweat levels. It can do the same to the non-pregnant too, though. Hyperthyroidism — the medical term for an overactive thyroid — means that the thyroid gland, which plays a large role in manipulating your body’s metabolic rate, goes into overdrive, producing excess levels of the metabolic hormones thyroxine (T4) and tri-iodothyronine (T3). Your body’s reaction to these hormone levels will be to speed up in basically all senses of the word: all your systems will be driven to work incredibly hard.
Sweating won’t be the sole manifestation of this, though; people with hyperthyroidism often also find the condition is accompanied by rapid weight loss, jitteriness, tremors, fatigue and a quick heartbeat, as your body tries to cope with the hormonal “push.” It may also be accompanied by an enlarged thyroid, or a goiter, on your neck. If you feel like you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, book a doctor’s appointment ASAP.
Excessive sweating can be a symptom of diabetes. Diabetes is a condition that affects how your body uses blood sugar, or glucose. Diabetes can cause low blood sugar levels, which then prompts a flight or fight response. This response triggers the release of certain hormones, like adrenaline, that cause excessive sweating. Prolonged times of low blood sugar can damage the nerves, including those that control the sweat glands, a condition called neuropathy.
Neuropathy that affects the sweat glands often results in too little or too much sweating. It’s important that you visit your doctor if your hyperhidrosis is because of your diabetes. Frequently diabetes-caused hyperhidrosis is a sign that your diabetes is poorly managed and that you need assistance in balancing your blood sugar levels.
Sudden and excessive sweating can signal that a heart attack is occurring. In fact, this symptom is often what prompts people to seek medical attention for a heart attack. When the blood supply that usually nourishes the heart is cut off, a heart attack occurs. This also causes the nervous system to go into fight or flight response, which leads to sudden hot flashes and/or sweating.
Knowing the other common symptoms of a heart attack can help save a life: sudden shortness of breath; pain in the arm, neck, shoulder, chest or back; a squeezing, tightening or high pressure sensation in the chest. If you have any of these signs with or without excessive sweating, get immediate medical attention.
Perimenopause — the period of time just before the female body enters menopause and stops having a menstrual cycle — causes sweating for much the same reason as pregnancy: the body reacts to shifting hormonal levels. The hot flashes of perimenopause, however, are more widely known than the pregnancy sopping-wet-underarms. Shifts in estrogen have a direct effect on the body’s temperature control settings, and some people may be more prone to flushed skin and the need to cool core body temperature, though science is not entirely sure why.
Hyperhidrosis can result from obesity, or having a BMI of 30 or higher. Obese people sweat more becasue of a few reasons. They have to physically exert themselves more to perform daily activities and are more likely to get overheated. They also have low surface area related to their weight, so their body has to work harder to cool itself down, leading to more sweating.
Infections and Injury
Some kinds of infections cause hyperhidrosis. The most common are tuberculosis, HIV, bone infection (osteomyelitis), or an abscess. Certain types of cancer, like lymphoma and malignant tumors can trigger hyperhidrosis. Spinal cord injuries are also known to lead to excessive sweating.
If you’re on certain meds, they may be at the root of your sweating mystery. There’s a class of medications known as diaphoretics, meaning that they cause excessive sweating in some people (and you may just be one of those lucky ones). The International Hyperhydrosis Society has a comprehensive list of these drugs, and many aren’t associated with sweating in popular thinking — which is why it’s important to carefully check possible side effects in medication advice.
The list includes some pain medications, blood pressure and cardiovascular drugs, chemotherapy, hormonal treatments, anything targeting the endocrine system, some antibiotics, and many more; check the list out to see if there’s a culprit in your medicine cabinet.
When you get anxious, you sweat; the body’s panic response is installed to produce excess perspiration in the event that something threatens us. The experts at the Anxiety Centre have a comprehensive explanation as to why:
“Stress hormones ready the body for immediate action by changing how the body functions when danger is perceived. Part of this change includes increasing perspiration so the body’s water can be eliminated through the skin rather than through the kidneys — so that you don’t have to stop to urinate in the midst of defending yourself from or escaping harm.
Another part of the stress response’s actions cause an increase in respiration and heart rate to shunt blood to the parts more necessary for emergency action and away from those that aren’t. This increased respiration and shunting action causes the body’s temperature to increase. A second reason for increased perspiration is to help cool the body.”
People who live with anxiety are therefore far more likely to sweat as a direct consequence of anxiety attacks, PTSD triggers ,and general anxiety. If you feel your anxiety has become dangerous or is keeping you from fully engaging with life, counseling can definitely help.
“Most of the time, sweating is perfectly normal while working out, in hot conditions, or right before a big sales pitch — but if you find it’s interfering with your life, is really bothersome, or makes you feel insecure, talk to a healthcare professional who can help determine the cause of excessive sweating and offer techniques or treatments to help manage it,” Dr. Dietz says.