What Your Sweat Says About Your Health
Those pesky armpit stains can tell you a lot about your body.
Unless you’re actively exercising or spending time in the summer heat, you probably don’t think too often about your sweat. But people with hyperhidrosis (a.k.a. excessive sweating) don’t have the privilege of blissful ignorance. Picture this: You’re at a corporate conference, about to be introduced to a bigwig potential client, and you notice your palms are wet. You gingerly wipe your hands on your pants, trying not to look like you just emerged from a pool, only to realize your brow is breaking out in beads of perspiration, too. Not to mention your feet, your armpits, and even your genital area. Ugh, you think, I’m not even that nervous. Why am I sweating so much?
At best, excessive sweating is inconvenient. At worst, it’s downright embarrassing. There is a long list of reasons why some people sweat more than others–it could be genetic, but it may also be a sign of an underlying health issue. “We all sweat when we exercise, when we’re stressed, or when it’s really hot or humid out,” says Angela Ballard, R.N., educator and advocate with the International Hyperhidrosis Society (IHHS) in Pipersville, PA. “That’s the sweating that we need to react to a situation. Excessive sweating, or hyperhidrosis, is sweating that is above and beyond what is necessary.” And in this case, your sweat could say something about your overall health.
Types of Excessive Sweating
Hyperhidrosis falls into two categories: primary and secondary. One is a medical condition by itself, while the other is a side effect of another medical condition or medication. The type of hyperhidrosis you have will determine your treatment needs, so it helps if you can distinguish between the two.
Primary hyperhidrosis–This type of sweating usually starts in childhood and is symmetric on both sides of the body: both hands, both feet, both underarms, or both sides of the head or face. It occurs during the day and stops when you sleep. “Rarely does it have to do with underlying causes,” explains Malcolm Brock, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Sweat Disorders in Baltimore. The majority of people with excessive sweating fall into this category.
Scientists don’t know exactly what causes primary hyperhidrosis, but it likely has something to do to with genetics. “We’re finding that this is a primary problem of your autonomic or automatic nervous system,” says Dr. Brock. Though this form of sweating may run in your genes, there are ways to treat it, including topical creams and Botox. Talk to your doctor to learn more.
Secondary or generalized hyperhidrosis–This type of sweating is not connected to family history and is usually more of a full-body issue. It can occur while you’re awake or sleeping, and it often signifies an underlying health condition or a side effect of a new medication. “If someone has new, unusual, excessive sweating, you want to talk to your doctor to make sure there isn’t some fixable problem,” Ballard says. Your sweat can sometimes be a warning sign that something more serious is going on.
Causes of Secondary/Generalized Hyperhidrosis
You just started a new medication. “Medications are probably the number one cause of generalized hyperhidrosis,” Dr. Brock says. There’s a long list of medications that can cause sweating—from blood pressure medications to immunosuppressants to antidepressants—so this is especially relevant for people with chronic health conditions. See the full list of medications known to cause excessive sweating at the IHHS website. If you suspect your medication might be to blame for your newfound armpit stains, don’t make any changes before consulting a medical pro. “No one should ever change or stop taking their medications without talking to a doctor first,” Ballard urges. Sure, your sweating might subside in a week or two, but it’s not worth risking your long-term health.
Your hormones are changing. Menopause is another common cause of excessive sweating. Many (though not all) women who get hot flashes report heavy sweating or chills. This often occurs at night and may be intense enough to wake you up from your much-needed beauty sleep. Menopause symptoms won’t last forever, but if they’re really disrupting your life, your OB/GYN can help you with a menopause treatment plan.
Your thyroid is out of whack. An overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism) causes symptoms like health palpitations, weight loss, high blood pressure—and yes, excessive sweating. About one in 100 people have an overactive thyroid, most commonly attributed to a condition called Graves’ disease. Though mild cases sometimes go away naturally, your doctor may prescribe an antithyroid drug to help speed the recovery process.
You’re coping with anxiety. We all know that feeling of butterflies in the stomach and clammy palms when we’re nervous. Anxiety sweating is different than other forms of sweating because it comes from the apocrine glands, located in your armpits, groin, and breast area. “This sweat is thicker and has more fatty substances in it,” Ballard explains. It can also cause strong body odor. If you find this is happening a lot, talk to your doctor about treatment options for anxiety.
You might have an infection. Night sweats aren’t just a sign of menopause; they can also signify that your body is fighting off a bacterial or viral infection. Malaria and tuberculosis can both cause night sweats along with fever, muscle aches, fatigue, and a loss of appetite.
You could have an underlying, untreated disease like heart disease, diabetes, or cancer. Finally, sweating could be a sign of heart failure, diabetes, or even lymphoma. This is why it’s so important to ask for a doctor’s opinion. “The doctor needs to sit down and think about the patient’s history,” Dr. Brock says. “Is this an infection? Is this due to a malignancy? Is it due to hormone deficiency?”
Your body is brilliant in its ability to regulate itself, and it knows how to provide warning signs when something strange is going on. If your sweat is suddenly heavier, stronger, or otherwise different than you’re used to, that’s more than just an unfortunate inconvenience; it’s a potentially serious issue worth getting checked out.
Even if you’ve always been a super sweaty person, you shouldn’t have to fear social interactions or be scared to bring it up with your doctor. “When sweating is impacting someone’s life and harming their self-image, then it needs to be taken care of,” Ballard says. “It’s not just a little sweat—it’s a real quality of life and mental wellness issue.”
- Primary vs. Secondary Hyperhidrosis: International Hyperhidrosis Society. (n.d.) “Two Types of Hyderhidrosis.” sweathelp.org/home/types-of-hyperhidrosis
- Treatments for Primary Hyperhidrosis: American Family Physician. (2018.) “Hyperhidrosis: Management Options.” aafp.org/afp/2018/0601/p729.html
- Causes of Generalized Hyperhidrosis: International Hyperhidrosis Society. (n.d.) “Causes of Secondary Hyperhidrosis: Generalized Hyperhidrosis.” sweathelp.org/about-hyperhidrosis/causes-of-secondary-hyperhidrosis/generalized-hyperhidrosis.html
- Menopause Signs & Symptoms: National Institute on Aging. (n.d.) “What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Menopause?” nia.nih.gov/health/what-are-signs-and-symptoms-menopause
- Hyperthyroidism: InformedHealth.org. (2008.) “Overactive thyroid: Overview.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279480/