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Excessive Sweating (Hyperhidrosis)

Excessive Sweating (Hyperhidrosis)

Excessive sweating (hyperhidrosis) means that you sweat much more than normal. Excessive sweating occurs even when you are not hot, anxious, or exercising.

Excessive sweating (hyperhidrosis) can be really distressing. Some people with excessive sweating avoid social contact with others because of embarrassment about the problem. However, the condition is usually treatable so it's always worth discussing the problem with your doctor. See separate leaflet called Sweaty Feet.

Why do I sweat so much?

Hyperhydrosis means excessive sweating and can have many causes. Excessive sweating in the armpits, hands, feet and creases is treatable. Other causes include spinal disease, anxiety, heart problems and some cancers. It is worth discussing concerns with your doctor

What are the different types and causes?

There are three main types of excessive sweating:

  • Primary (idiopathic) focal hyperhidrosis. This means that excessive sweating occurs in one or more of the following focal places: palms of your hands, soles of your feet, your armpits (axillae), or your face and head.
  • Secondary focal hyperhidrosis. Excessive sweating occurs in one particular part of your body. But, unlike primary focal hyperhidrosis, there is a known or likely cause of the excessive sweating.
  • Generalised hyperhidrosis. Excessive sweating occurs all over your body.

It is important to know which type you have because the causes and treatments are very different.

Read more about the different types and causes of excessive sweating.

What can you do to help reduce it?

Mild excessive sweating may just need a few simple measures such as avoiding a particular type of soap or eating spicy foods that trigger excessive sweating. Use an antiperspirant regularly and wear loose clothing. If you have excessive armpit sweating then aluminium chloride antiperspirant is more effective than normal antiperspirants.

Learn more about self-help for excessive sweating.

What are the other treatment options?

If simple advice doesn't help then a skin specialist (called a dermatologist) may use various treatments to help reduce the sweating. These include:

  • Medication. Various medicines have been used to reduce sweating. For example, propantheline is a medicine that can help to reduce excessive sweating that is caused by eating or drinking.
  • Iontophoresis. This is a treatment that uses electrical stimulation. It is used mainly to treat sweating of the palms and/or soles. It can also be used to treat armpit sweating. It works well in most cases.
  • Botulinum toxin injections. This is an option that usually works well for armpit sweating. Treatment consists of many small injections just under the skin in the affected areas.

Surgery

An operation is an option for people who have not been helped much by other treatments, or if other treatments cause unacceptable side-effects or problems.

  • For armpit sweating one option is to remove the sweat glands in the armpit. Laser treatment can also be used to destroy the sweat glands in the armpit.
  • For palm sweating, an option is to have an operation to cut some of the nerves that run down the side of the spinal cord. These nerves control the sweat glands in the hands. The operation is called endoscopic thoracoscopic sympathectomy.
  • Surgery is not usually done for sweating of the soles. Although cutting the nerves next to the spinal cord in the lower back region may cure the problem of sweating, there is a high risk of this also affecting sexual function.

Find out more about the treatments for excessive sweating.

What are the possible complications?

Although not a medically serious condition, excessive sweating can be very embarrassing. For example:

  • If you have bad palm sweating you tend to have a cold, sweaty handshake and sweat may drip from your hands on to work documents, computer keyboards, etc.
  • If you have bad armpit sweating, you may become embarrassed by the frequent wet patch that develops on clothes under your arms.
  • You may need to change clothes during the day.
  • You may avoid social contact or avoid doing sports because of embarrassment about the condition.

Other complications are uncommon. In some cases, the affected skin can become sore, irritated and prone to infection. There is a risk of developing dermatitis on the affected skin.

What are the types and causes of excessive sweating?

Primary (idiopathic) focal hyperhidrosis

This type of excessive sweating tends to affect both sides of your body - that is, the palms of both hands, soles of both feet or both armpits. On the rest of the body, you sweat normally.

The exact cause is not known and it is not associated with any other conditions. (The word idiopathic means of unknown cause.) It just seems that the sweat glands in these areas are more active or more sensitive than normal. In some people, it may run in the family so there may be some genetic factor involved in causing it. It usually first develops under the age of 25 years, but it can develop at any age. Men and women are equally affected. It is common and affects about 3 in 100 people.

The severity can vary from time to time. It may come and go and can be made worse by triggers such as anxiety, emotion, spicy foods or heat. Excessive sweating on the forehead, face, scalp and neck soon after eating is called gustatory sweating.

Anxiety about the sweating itself may make it worse. Excessive sweating tends to be a long-term condition but symptoms sometimes improve over time.

If you have the typical symptoms of primary focal hyperhidrosis, you usually do not need any tests. Your doctor may suggest one or more treatments (see below) if normal antiperspirants do not work well.

Secondary focal hyperhidrosis

This is uncommon. It means that the excessive sweating occurs in one particular part of your body because of a known or likely cause. For example, a spinal disease or injury may cause sweating in one leg. Your doctor may suggest some tests to look for an underlying cause.

Generalised hyperhidrosis

This means that you sweat more than normal all over your body. This is less common than primary focal hyperhidrosis. However, it is usually caused by an underlying medical condition. A whole range of conditions can cause a generalised increased sweating. For example:

  • Anxiety disorders.
  • Various heart problems.
  • Damage to nerves in the spinal cord.
  • Side-effects to certain medicines.
  • Various hormone problems (including an overactive thyroid gland).
  • Infections.
  • Certain cancers.

If you have generalised hyperhidrosis your doctor is likely to examine you and do some tests to find out the cause. The treatment depends on the cause.

What can you do to help reduce excessive sweating?

There is usually no single magic cure for excessive sweating but there is still a lot you can do. The following may be all that you need if the excessive sweating is mild. They may also help in addition to other treatments in more severe cases.

  • If you find that soaps irritate the affected skin, use a bland soap substitute such as a moisturiser (emollient) ointment or cream.
  • If possible, avoid triggers which can make things worse such as heat or spicy food.
  • If you have armpit sweating:
    • Try using normal antiperspirants regularly. (Note: there is a difference between antiperspirants and deodorants. Antiperspirants reduce the release of sweat; deodorants mask any unpleasant smells.)
    • Avoid clothes that more easily show up sweat marks. As a rule, white and black coloured clothes are less noticeable when wet than other colours.
    • Wear loose clothing under the armpits. Avoid clothes made with man-made fibres such as Lycra® and nylon.
    • Consider using dress shields (also known as armpit or sweat shields) to absorb excess sweat and protect delicate or expensive clothing. These can be obtained via the internet.
  • If you have excessive feet sweating, it can help to:
    • Change your socks at least twice a day.
    • Use an absorbent foot powder twice daily.
    • Wear a different pair of shoes on alternate days. This allows them to dry fully.
    • Avoid sport shoes or boots. These are often less breathable than normal shoes are, so are more likely to keep the sweat in.

Aluminium chloride - a strong antiperspirant

If normal antiperspirants do not work, it is worth trying an antiperspirant that contains aluminium chloride. This is a strong antiperspirant. It tends to work best in the armpits. However, it may also work for sweating of the palms and soles.

Aluminium chloride antiperspirants often cause skin irritation or inflammation. If this occurs, it is often still worth persevering if the irritation is tolerable, as the benefit may outweigh the irritation. To reduce the effects of any skin irritation or inflammation that may occur:

  • Use the antiperspirant less often.
  • Apply a moisturiser (emollient) every day after applying the aluminium chloride; and/or
  • Apply a short course of a mild steroid cream such as hydrocortisone 1% to the affected area twice daily for a maximum of 14 days. (Steroid creams reduce inflammation.)

What are the other treatment options for primary focal hyperhidrosis?

If lifestyle advice and antiperspirant treatments do not work, your doctor may suggest that they refer you to see a skin specialist (dermatologist). The specialist may suggest one of the following treatments.

Iontophoresis

This is a treatment that uses electrical stimulation. It is used mainly to treat sweating of the palms and/or soles. It can also be used to treat armpit sweating. It works well in most cases. Treatment involves putting the affected areas (usually hands and/or feet) into a small container filled with water. A small electrical current is then passed through the water, from a special machine. It is not dangerous but may cause some discomfort or a pins and needles feeling. The exact way this helps to treat sweating is not known. It may help to block the sweat glands in some way.

You will usually need 3-4 treatment sessions per week. Each treatment session lasts 20-40 minutes. Most people see an improvement after 6-10 sessions. A maintenance treatment is then usually required once every 1-4 weeks to keep symptoms away. If the treatment does not work with tap water, a medicine called glycopyrronium bromide is sometimes added to the water.

Iontophoresis does not work in every case. Also, some people develop side-effects from the treatment, such as a dry or sore mouth and throat, and dizziness, for up to 24 hours after each treatment episode.

You should not have iontophoresis if you are pregnant, or have a metal implant, such as a pin to fix a bone break (fracture), or if you have a pacemaker.

Botulinum toxin injections

Botulinum toxin injections are an option that usually works well for armpit sweating. Treatment consists of many small injections just under the skin in the affected areas. The botulinum toxin stops the nerves in the skin that control the sweat glands from working. Botulinum toxin is not licensed to treat sweating of the palms and face. This is because there is a risk that the injections may stop some of the nearby small muscles of the hands or face from working.

The downside of botulinum toxin is that the effect usually wears off after 4-12 months. Therefore, to keep working, the treatment needs repeating when the effect wears off.

Medication

Propantheline is a medicine that can be used if you have excessive sweating that happens soon after eating or drinking. Other medicines may be effective but at the moment there isn't any strong evidence to recommend any particular medicine for excessive sweating.

What about surgery?

An operation is an option for people who have not been helped much by other treatments, or if other treatments cause unacceptable side-effects or problems.

For armpit sweating 

One option is to remove the sweat glands in the armpit. There are various techniques. One technique is to remove the sweat glands from the underside of the skin through a small hole cut in the skin (called suction curettage).

A recent innovation has been to use a laser to destroy the sweat glands in the armpit - laser sweat ablation (LSA). This may result in less scarring than other surgical techniques.

For palm sweating 

One option is to have an operation to cut some of the nerves that run down the side of the spinal cord. These nerves control the sweat glands in the hands. The operation is called endoscopic thoracoscopic sympathectomy. It is done by keyhole surgery, using a special telescope to locate the nerve, and then to cut the nerve. Most people are pleased with the result of the operation. However, a complication that may occur following this operation is a compensatory increase in sweating in other parts of the body (such as in the chest or groin).

Surgery is not usually done for sweating of the soles. Although cutting the nerves next to the spinal cord in the lower back region may cure the problem of sweating, there is a high risk of this also affecting sexual function.

Further reading & references

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Patient Platform Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but makes no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other healthcare professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.

Author:
Dr Colin Tidy
Peer Reviewer:
Prof Cathy Jackson
Document ID:
4440 (v42)
Last Checked:
23/07/2017
Next Review:
22/07/2020