Hyperhidrosis, or excessive sweating, is a relatively rare, non-life-threatening medical condition that occurs in the:
- Hands (palmar hyperhidrosis)
- Armpits (axillary hyperhidrosis)
- Feet (plantar hyperhidrosis)
Regardless of where it occurs, hyperhidrosis affects a person’s quality of life. Excessive sweating can affect your entire body or just certain areas, particularly your palms, soles, underarms or face. The type that typically affects the hands and feet causes at least one episode a week, during waking hours.
What are the causes of excessive sweating?
If heavy sweating has no underlying medical cause, it’s called primary hyperhidrosis. This type occurs when the nerves responsible for triggering your sweat glands become overactive and call for more perspiration even when it’s not needed. Primary hyperhidrosis may be at least partially hereditary.
If the sweating can be attributed to an underlying medical condition, it’s called secondary hyperhidrosis.
Health conditions that may cause excessive sweating include:
- Diabetic hypoglycaemia
- Fever of undetermined cause
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Heart attack
- Heat exhaustion
- Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid)
- Medication side effects, such as sometimes experienced when taking some beta blockers and antidepressants
- Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
Who is affected by excessive sweating?
People of all ages and genders can be affected by hyperhidrosis. This condition affects millions of people around the world (approximately 3 percent of the population), but because of lack of awareness and understanding that there are treatments for the condition, more than half of these people are never diagnosed or treated for their symptoms.
Is hyperhidrosis serious?
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.
When to see a doctor?
Seek immediate medical attention if your heavy sweating is accompanied by:
- Chest Pain
- A body temperature of 104 F or higher
Contact your doctor if you experience any of the following:
- You suddenly begin to sweat more than usual
- Sweating disrupts your daily routine
- You experience night sweats for no apparent reason
How is hyperhidrosis diagnosed?
When hyperhidrosis is suspected, your doctor will perform a thorough physical exam. Several tests may be performed, including:
- Starch-iodine test: An iodine solution is applied to the sweaty area and starch is sprinkled over the iodine solution. The starch-iodine combination will turn a dark blue colour indicating where there is excess sweat production.
- Paper test: Special paper is placed on the affected area to absorb sweat, and then weighed to determine the amount of sweating that occurs.
- Laboratory tests, such as thyroid function tests, blood glucose and uric acid level measurements, and urine samples are performed to rule out more serious medical conditions that may be associated with excessive sweating.
How is hyperhidrosis treated?
There are a variety of treatment options for patients with localized hyperhidrosis. Typically, your physician will initially treat hyperhidrosis with ointments or salves that “dry up” sweat glands. Antiperspirants, both prescription (such as Drysol) and non-prescription also decrease sweating in not only the armpits, but also can be used to treat mild cases of hyperhidrosis of the hands and feet.
Medical treatment: One medical treatment option for hyperhidrosis is iontophoresis, which requires the hands or feet to be placed into a shallow pan of water that an electrical current is passed through. A medical device sends a low-voltage current through the water, “stunning” the sweat glands and decreasing the secretion of sweat for period of six hours to one week. Iontophoresis is most effective if it is completed every other day for about six to ten treatments. After completing a series of treatments, up to 80 percent of patients may stop sweating. However, this treatment can be painful.
Surgery: When medical treatments have failed to offer adequate control of hyperhidrosis, your doctor may recommend surgery. Surgery may be recommended for severe cases of palmar or axillary hyperhidrosis that have not responded to medical therapy. Your doctor will determine if surgery is the appropriate treatment for you.