Though perspiration may sometimes seem like an evil trick perpetrated by an uncaring universe (especially when you’re wearing a white shirt in the summertime), there are reasons why we sweat, and they go far beyond just helping us look shiny and vaguely burnished after 100 reps in the gym. Perspiration is a function of a complicated bodily system involving metabolism, temperature regulation, hormonal levels, blood flow on the skin and various other factors. It can also be triggered by medical or emotional issues (so, yes, you’re not the only one; other people get the sweats when they’re embarrassed, too). So far, so unpleasant-but-normal; but what’s happening inside your body when it starts producing sweat at levels that seem excessive?
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. It’s important to realize that dealing with excessive sweating is not just a matter of cooling yourself down; perspiration is a complicated thing, and many different bodily conditions can throw it out of whack. You’re not just producing a new natural lake under your armpits for the fun of it; with some medical investigation, you may be able to pinpoint a cause of your excessive sweating and possibly even treat it.
Do a bit of investigation (where do you sweat from? When does it tend to occur? What emotional or physical events happen beforehand? What other symptoms accompany it?) and keep those facts in mind while we explore some reasons why you might be extremely sweaty on the regular. Detective hats on, hand-towels at the ready.
1. Primary Focal Hyperhidrosis
This is one of the most common causes of excessive sweating: according to WebMD, it affects between one and three percent of the human population. 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 percent 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.
Knocked up? Your glow may at least partially be due to a thin sheen of sweat that covers you at all times. Everyday Health explains that the sweatiness that many experience while the bun is in the proverbial oven is due to a rise in overall body temperature and metabolism: the hormonal levels involved in incubating a small human produce higher blood flow to the skin, raising perspiration levels, and your metabolic rate will also increase. 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, it is completely normal.
3. Thyroid Issues
This is actually 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. It’s not exactly fun.
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 — thyroid issues are no joke.
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 women may be more prone to flushed skin and the need to cool core body temperature, though we’re not entirely sure why.
Heathline details three ways in which diabetes sufferers may experience excess sweating: one in response to low blood sugar, one in relation to food, and one solely occurring at night. The first is such an established symptom that diabetics are warned to check for sweat as a marker that their blood sugar has started to fall to unacceptable levels; the nervous system’s trigger for sweating is signaled by low blood sugar levels. The second is rarer, and is called “gustatory sweating” because of its exclusive relationship with food; it’s associated with serious diabetics who may have suffered nerve damage, happens exclusively around food (or thoughts or food), and is confined to the head and neck.
The third is the dreaded “night sweats,” or nocturnal hyperhidrosis. And it’s not purely related to diabetes; the National Health Service also ties night sweats to sleep apnea, infections or hormone problems, amongst other possibilities. But it’s definitely an issue for diabetics, and tends to be a signal of low blood sugar due to the body’s insulin regulation at night.
6. Medication Sweats
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 suffering from anxiety disorders are therefore far more likely to suffer from excess sweat as a direct consequence of anxiety attacks, PTSD triggers and general anxiety. Counseling can definitely help with this one, though; if you feel your anxiety has become dangerous or is keeping you from fully engaging with life, go see your GP to locate proper psychological assistance.
And remember that, though some medical problems do make us sweat more, there’s nothing “wrong,” “unhealthy,” or “gross” about sweating a lot.
The reality is that nervous sweating is not only common – it’s normal. When you’re nervous, your body’s fight or flight system activates, sending a rush of hormone into your body that triggers an increase in heart rate and blood flow, among other things. Sweating is then also activated to help cool the body down from all of that energy, otherwise we would overheat and possibly damage our bodies. General nervousness and anxiousness may also cause sweating, even without an anxiety disorder. For example, many people find that before an important meeting or a final in high school or college that their hands start to sweat. That’s because they’re stressed, and their body is responding to the extra energy by cooling them down. The key to reducing anxious sweating is not stopping the sweating itself. You can’t (and don’t want to) stop your body’s ability to cool down, otherwise your body would overheat and potentially damage your brain and organs. Instead, you need to find a way to control your heartbeat and calm your nerves, so that your body isn’t heating up and sweating to compensate. You also need to reduce excess heat on the areas that are sweating, in order to prevent excess sweating. Some examples of how to reduce this sweating include:
Overcome Nervous Sweating & Hyperhidrosis
Some people fear nervous sweating in front of others – at a party, for example, or a staff meeting – to the point that it fills their lives with worry. The fear of sweating becomes a monkey on their back, and leads them to avoid ordinary occasions and activities. It’s a solvable problem, provided you understand how it works.
What do people with nervous sweating fear? They’re afraid they’ll look odd and defective, sweating profusely in a comfortably cool room. They worry others will think they’re ill, and want to call an ambulance. They worry that others will judge them as extremely nervous and unstable, and not want to socialize or do business with them. They worry that someone will blurt out, “Oh my God, are you okay?”, and they’ll sweat even more as everyone stares at them.
People with a fear of sweating vary in the details. Some fear sweat appearing on their face or forehead where it will be most visible. Others are more concerned with sweaty palms, especially when they have to shake hands or sign documents in front of others. Others worry about their underarms and chest, fearing that sweat will appear on their clothes.
Many people who fear sweating simply sweat more than the average person and become embarrassed about it. They often have family members with the same trait. Others just sweat more when they’re anxious, especially in social situations where they fear being observed. It happens once, and then they fervently hope that it doesn’t happen again.
This “hoping” often makes it happen again.
I’ve worked with a number of people in Chicago who came to see me exclusively for help with the fear of sweating, and I’ve also seen people for whom sweating was one of several panic symptoms they experienced. While people differ in the details, there is a general pattern to this problem, and that gives us a way to treat it.
Social Phobia or Hyperhidrosis?
Nervous sweating is related to a condition called Hyperhidrosis. Primary Hyperhidrosis is a condition of excessive sweating without known cause or triggers, while Secondary Hyperhidrosis is triggered by certain cues, including anxiety. In general, if the excessive sweating you fear only occurs in situations where others can see you, never when you’re alone, that’s a strong indication it’s a type of Social Phobia.
If you search the Internet, you’ll find lots of medications and even surgery offered for this condition. Be aware that the research on such treatments is not very strong. If yours is a Secondary Hyperhidrosis, it’s probably smart to try the least intrusive methods of help before even thinking of drugs or surgery. Above all, be an informed consumer, because the Internet is full of questionable self help products. Check whatever you find with your physician and mental health professional before proceeding.
How Nervous Sweating Develops
Step One: People Identify their Sweating as a Shameful Flaw
The first step in developing nervous sweating is noticing that you sweat more, or in a different way, than some other people, and becoming concerned about that. If everybody on Earth had the identical pattern of sweating, there wouldn’t be any fear of it. Many people with nervous sweating remember the first time they got attention for sweating, and that unpleasant memory stays with them the same way the memory of a first panic attack stays with people. They think of sweating as their flaw, maybe even their fault. They feel shame and embarrassment, and dread each future drop of perspiration.
Step Two: Anticipation
The second step is anticipation. Once a person identifies sweating as a problem, it doesn’t take long before they start anticipating it. “What if sweat stands out on my forehead when I present at the staff meeting?” “What if my hands are all clammy when it’s time to shake hands?”
This anticipatory anxiety suggests that you should be thinking something and doing something now to prevent future episodes of sweating. And so you try.
This is a problem, because the harder you try, the worse it gets.
Step Three: People try to control and hide their sweating
The third step in the development of this problem is that people resort to “safety behaviors” in the hopes of preventing and/or hiding their sweat. For instance, you might keep a supply of napkins in your pocket to dry off before shaking hands, or to blot up the sweat on your forehead when no one is looking. You might keep a glass of ice water handy, for drinking and also for touching to your face when no one can notice. You might select your clothes with an eye toward hiding sweat. Whenever possible, you position yourself in a room near a fan or air conditioner. Other safety behaviors include: taking a cold shower just before an event; excessive use of antiperspirants, deodorants, perfumes, and talcum powder; finding ways to avoid handshakes; sticking your head out the window on a cold day just before a meeting; using anti-anxiety medications, and so on.
Will these solve the problem? Probably not. In fact, the more you worry about, and try to hide or suppress this sweating, the more it tends to happen. As with yawning, we don’t consciously control the process, but we can increase it by trying to suppress it.
The more you oppose sweating, and try to keep it your secret, the bigger a problem it becomes, because this resistance and secrecy persuades you that you really do have something shameful and deviant to hide. And it diverts your attention and energy from what’s actually important in your life to this basic, involuntary physiological response, and gives it exaggerated importance.
Overcoming Nervous Sweating
There is no direct, foolproof way to abolish nervous sweating, or to limit your sweating to the amount you think appropriate.
But this doesn’t have to be a terrible problem for you. As a first step, evaluate what I’m saying here. Is this true for you, that your efforts to hide and stop the sweating have converted this nuisance into a significant problem? If so, then perhaps a different approach will produce better results for you.
I refer to nervous sweating here as a nuisance. If you have a fear of sweating, that probably sounds like a huge understatement. But the truth is, perspiration volume is neither an important nor common sign of character. If you’re running for President, breaking into a sweat during a televised debate might sink your campaign. But the rest of us have a big say in how large or small this problem is. We make it bigger by fighting and hiding the sweating. We can make it smaller by becoming more open and accepting of it. You don’t get to choose how much sweating you do, so why should you treat it like a mark of dishonor?
What makes the problem worse is the dreading, the hiding, and the secrecy. As you gradually undo those steps, the problem will become less and less.
Most people with nervous sweating are so upset and concerned about their sweating, so used to a pattern of hiding and struggling against it, that they can’t simply stop all in one step. It’s often necessary to slowly reverse course and gradually become more open with it. It’s not important to make rapid change. What’s important is to change direction. So long as you’re headed in the right direction, you can get where you want.