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underarm sweat

What is hyperhidrosis?

Hyperhidrosis (hi-purr-hi-DROE-sis) is a medical condition in which a person sweats too much; it is the clinical name for excessive sweating. The word “hyperhidrosis” means too much (hyper) sweating (hidrosis). People with hyperhidrosis sweat excessively and unpredictably, and may sweat even when the temperature is cool or when they are at rest.

Sweating helps the body stay cool, and in most cases is perfectly natural. People sweat more in warm temperatures, when they exercise, or in response to situations that make them nervous, angry, embarrassed, or afraid. Excessive sweating occurs without such triggers. People who have hyperhidrosis sweat when the body does not need cooling. The uncontrollable sweating can lead to significant discomfort, both physical and emotional.

Many people who have hyperhidrosis sweat from one or two areas of the body. Most often, they sweat from their underarms, palms, feet or head. While the rest of the body remains dry, one or two areas may drip with sweat.

This excessive sweating can interfere with everyday activities. Hands can be so sweaty that it becomes difficult to turn a doorknob or use a computer. Sweat from the underarms often soaks through clothes, causing obvious sweat marks. Because the skin is often wet, skin infections can develop.

Hyperhidrosis is not a serious or life-threatening condition, although it often interferes with normal, daily activities and affects a person’s quality of life. Severe, chronic sweating may make the affected skin white, wrinkled, and cracked, often causing the area to become red and inflamed. Hyperhidrosis often requires medical care.

What causes hyperhidrosis?

Certain nerves tell the body when to sweat. It is possible that these nerves overreact, causing excessive sweating. While there may be a family connection, it cannot be “caught” from or “passed” onto someone.

Dermatologists continue to study what causes this condition and continue to work on improved treatments. If excessive sweating interferes with your life, you may want to see a dermatologist to learn about a variety of treatments that are available.

No clear cause of hyperhidrosis has been identified to date. To better understand why hyperhidrosis occurs, it is important to recognize that sweat is required by the body as a coolant to protect against overheating.

Your body has several million sweat glands distributed over it, the bulk of which are eccrine glands that secrete odorless, clear fluid that helps regulate body temperature through evaporative heat loss. Generally, hyperhidrosis involves overactive eccrine glands.

The apocrine glands are the other type of sweat glands, which are found in the armpits and genital area. Apocrine glands produce a thick fluid that produces body odor when it comes in contact with bacteria on the skin’s surface.

Nerves activate both the eccrine and apocrine glands. These nerves (from the autonomic nervous system) become active due to a variety of stimuli, including:

  • Heat
  • Hormones
  • Stress
  • Physical activity or exercise

In patients with hyperhidrosis, sweat glands (eccrine glands in particular) overreact to stimuli, producing more sweat than is needed.