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Hyperhidrosis

What Is It, Causes, Treatment, and More

Author: Anna Hernández, MD

Editors: Alyssa Haag, Kelsey LaFayette, BAN, RN 

Illustrator: Jillian Dunbar

Copyeditor: Joy Mapes


What is hyperhidrosis?

Hyperhidrosis is a medical condition that causes a person to sweat much more than is physically necessary in one or more parts of the body

Sweating is an essential bodily function that helps to regulate body temperature and prevent the body from overheating. People with hyperhidrosis have overactive sweat glands that produce more sweat than required to cool the body. Although hyperhidrosis is not a dangerous condition, it can be a source of significant stress and social embarrassment for some individuals, as it can interfere with their everyday activities and personal relationships.   

Sweat comes from two types of sweat glands, the eccrine and apocrine glands, both of which are under the control of the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is activated in response to stressful or frightening situations; it triggers the “fight or flight” response. Eccrine sweat glands are widely distributed throughout the body and produce an odorless, clear sweat. When there is a rise in body temperature, the sympathetic nervous system activates eccrine sweat glands to release sweat in order to cool the body down. Conversely, apocrine sweat glands are mainly located on the underarms and groin area. The apocrine glands typically produce a fatty sweat that gives those areas their characteristic body odor scent. Rather than responding to body temperature, apocrine glands release sweat in response to emotional stress or anxiety. 

What causes hyperhidrosis?

Hyperhidrosis can be classified as primary or secondary, depending on the underlying cause.

Primary hyperhidrosis, also known as primary focal hyperhidrosis, is the type of hyperhidrosis that is not a symptom of an underlying medical condition or the side effect of medication. Primary hyperhidrosis often begins in childhood or adolescence, and it is thought to occur due to an overstimulation of the sympathetic nerve fibers that control sweating. Primary hyperhidrosis typically causes sweat in focal, or specific, areas of the body, such as the underarms, head, hands, or feet. Moreover, it tends to affect both sides of the body. Depending on the area affected, primary hyperhidrosis can be further classified into axillary hyperhidrosis (sweaty underarms), palmar hyperhidrosis (sweaty hands), plantar hyperhidrosis (sweaty feet), and craniofacial hyperhidrosis (sweaty face or head).  

Secondary hyperhidrosis occurs as a result of an underlying cause. Unlike primary hyperhidrosis, secondary hyperhidrosis affects the entire body and commonly presents later in life. There are a variety of conditions that can lead to secondary hyperhidrosis, including endocrine disorders (e.g., increased thyroid function), diabetes mellitus, infections (e.g., tuberculosis, malaria, HIV infection, etc.), neurological conditions (e.g., a stroke or Parkinson’s disease), and certain types of cancer, (e.g., Hodgkin’s lymphoma). Finally, secondary hyperhidrosis can be a side effect of some medications, such as antidepressants (e.g., selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs), or substance use, including heavy alcohol consumption or withdrawal.

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Is hyperhidrosis genetic?

Primary hyperhidrosis appears to have a genetic component, as the condition can sometimes run in families. Regarding secondary hyperhidrosis, some individuals may be genetically predisposed to conditions that can cause secondary hyperhidrosis (e.g., diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, some endocrine disorders), while others may develop secondary hyperhidrosis with no associated genetic factors.

What is axillary hyperhidrosis?

Axillary hyperhidrosis is a form of primary focal hyperhidrosis that affects the underarm area (i.e., the axilla). Individuals with axillary hyperhidrosis may experience increased underarm sweat that leads to sweat stains. In addition, excessive moisture from sweating can increase the risk of developing certain skin conditions, such as fungal or bacterial skin infections

How is hyperhidrosis diagnosed?

Hyperhidrosis can be diagnosed clinically based on a careful medical history and physical exam. Initial assessment typically focuses on determining the severity and type of hyperhidrosis, as well as identifying any underlying medical conditions. 

In cases of focal hyperhidrosis, a Minor’s iodine-starch test may help assess the degree of excessive sweating and effectiveness of hyperhidrosis treatments. This test is performed by applying an iodine solution to the skin, followed by a thin layer of starch powder. Once sweating begins, the mixture turns dark blue in color, outlining the area affected by hyperhidrosis

If the signs and symptoms are clear, further tests are generally not necessary to confirm the diagnosis. However, in cases of generalized sweating, or if hyperhidrosis presents later in life, secondary causes may be suspected, and the clinician may recommend additional laboratory or imaging tests in order to confirm the diagnosis.

How is hyperhidrosis treated?

Treatment of primary focal hyperhidrosis can be challenging and time consuming, as many treatments offer only temporary relief or do not work consistently over time. 

Over-the-counter (OTC) antiperspirants are most commonly applied to manage axillary hyperhidrosis, but they can also be applied to the hands or feet to reduce sweating in those areas. Most antiperspirants contain small amounts of aluminum salts, such as aluminum chloride, which interact with components of sweat and form a plug that temporarily blocks sweat release. Although antiperspirants can reduce visible sweating for a few hours, they may irritate the skin, possibly causing a burning or tingling sensation. Unlike antiperspirants, conventional deodorants do not reduce sweating; they only prevent growth of the bacteria responsible for body odor or mask the odor with fragrance. 

Individuals who do not respond well to antiperspirants may consider local therapies, such as iontophoresis. For iontophoresis, the individual’s skin is soaked in tap water before receiving a mild electrical current from a medical device. Iontophoresis is particularly effective when excessive sweating affects the hands or feet, but results may not be noticeable until after a few sessions. Alternatively, primary focal hyperhidrosis can be treated with periodic injections of botulinum toxin (Botox), which temporarily blocks sympathetic activity in the treated area, thereby reducing excessive sweating.

Surgery is another treatment option for primary focal hyperhidrosis. Surgeons can remove small areas of sweat glands from areas that produce excessive sweat, or, through a more invasive procedure called endoscopic thoracic sympathectomy (ETS), surgeons can cut off the sympathetic nervous supply to sweat glands. Because surgery is permanent and carries significant risks, it is usually considered only when excessive sweating persists despite more conservative measures. 

Finally, individuals with generalized hyperhidrosis may benefit from oral treatment with anticholinergic medications, like oxybutynin or glycopyrronium. These medications work by blocking the activity of the  sympathetic nervous system, thereby reducing sweating. Although anticholinergics can be effective for some individuals with hyperhidrosis, they may produce a variety of side effects, including blurry vision, dry mouth, palpitations (i.e., the sensation of the heart pounding inside the chest), and trouble urinating. In order to avoid the side effects of oral medications, pre-moistened cloths containing glycopyrronium, one of these medications, have been recently approved to treat excessive underarm sweat.

In cases of secondary hyperhidrosis, treatment often involves addressing the underlying medical condition or discontinuing any medications that may be causing the sweating as a side effect.

 

Is hyperhidrosis curable?

Unfortunately, primary hyperhidrosis does not have a definitive cure. While newer surgical treatments can be effective for some individuals, they do not always resolve symptoms, and they can carry significant risks, including persistent pain and damage to nerves. In contrast, secondary hyperhidrosis can typically be resolved if the underlying cause is treated successfully.

What are the most important facts to know about hyperhidrosis?

Hyperhidrosis (excessive sweating) is a medical condition, with one or more parts of the body producing more sweat than is biologically necessary. While it is not a life-threatening condition, hyperhidrosis can significantly impact the quality of life of affected individuals, interfering with their everyday activities and emotional well-being. Hyperhidrosis can occur without any underlying cause (primary hyperhidrosis), or as a result of various medical conditions, including endocrine disorders, infections, or certain types of cancer (secondary hyperhidrosis). In cases of primary hyperhidrosis, treatment may include topical antiperspirants, oral medications, local therapies, or surgery. Despite all treatments available, primary hyperhidrosis tends to be a recurring condition that is often difficult to control. Treatment of secondary hyperhidrosis begins by addressing any underlying medical conditions or discontinuing any suspected medications. 

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Related links

Skin anatomy and physiology
Body temperature regulation (thermoregulation)
Hydration
Sympathetic nervous system

Resources for research and reference

Connolly, M., & de Berker, D. (2003). Management of primary hyperhidrosis: A summary of the different treatment modalities. American Journal of Clinical Dermatology, 4(10): 681-697. DOI: 10.2165/00128071-200304100-00003

Doolittle, J., Walker, P., Mills, T., & Thurston, J. (2016). Hyperhidrosis: An update on prevalence and severity in the United States. Archives of Dermatological Research, 308(10): 743–749. DOI: 10.1007/s00403-016-1697-9

Hosp, C., & Hamm, H. (2017). Safety of available and emerging drug therapies for hyperhidrosis. Expert Opinion on Drug Safety, 16(9): 1039-1049. DOI: 10.1080/14740338.2017.1354983

Nawrocki, S., & Cha, J. (2019). The etiology, diagnosis, and management of hyperhidrosis: A comprehensive review: Etiology and clinical work-up. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 81(3): 657-666. DOI: 10.1016/j.jaad.2018.12.071

Watkins, J. (2015). Understanding and treating hyperhidrosis. Practice Nursing, 26(6): 295-297. DOI: 10.12968/pnur.2015.26.6.295