You’ve only been in Pilates class for ten minutes, yet sweat is dripping down your body. Meanwhile, the other people in class are dry as a bone. What’s the deal? Why is there such a range in the amount of sweat different people produce?
Basically, sweat is your body’s built-in AC system, a necessary bodily process that helps you regulate your temperature. Sweat can even act as a natural moisturizer! Still, it’s often thought of as gross or unladylike, despite the fact that sweating is totally normal and healthy… for most people. If you’re someone who sweats way more than seems normal, though, you might feel quite a bit differently about the whole deal.
Hyperhidrosis is the clinical term for excessive sweating. And according to Angela Ballard, RN and health educator with the International Hyperhidrosis Society, the condition affects almost 5% of the US population — about 367 million people worldwide. That’s a lot of people struggling with sweat! Ballard explains, of the condition, “It’s often said that people with hyperhidrosis have sweat glands that are stuck in the ‘on’ position. The sweat glands overreact to stimuli and produce more sweat than is normal.” Interestingly, hyperhidrosis is considered a skin disorder.
There are two main types of hyperhidrosis: primary hyperhidrosis, a specific condition of excessive sweating, and secondary hyperhidrosis, which is excessive sweating as a side effect of a health condition (like obesity, diabetes, or overactive thyroid) or medication (like some antidepressants). Unfortunately, science hasn’t exactly figured out what causes primary hyperhidrosis, although Ballard says it can be inherited. People with hyperhidrosis often sweat excessively from multiple parts of the body, including hands, feet, face, or armpits.
While hyperhidrosis is certainly physically difficult, often the emotional effects are even harder to deal with, explains Ballard: “It’s often dismissed as a small, maybe even cosmetic problem. But what people may not realize is how severely it impacts day-to-day life, life choices (career choices, choices about whether to go to a party or not, whether to speak in public or not, whether to hold someone’s hand or hug them or not, etc), self-esteem and self-confidence, the ability to thrive and advance at work, at school, in hobbies and sports, and how people judge and see you. There are many negative stereotypes associated with too much sweating that a person struggling with this condition much face and overcome each day — through no fault of their own.”
Excessive sweating isn’t the only issue that can crop up in terms of perspiration, either: Anhidrosis (lack of sweating) is also a condition, a dangerous one that can lead to overheating. It’s less common than hyperhidrosis, only affecting about 2% of the population. There’s also excessive sweating that’s hormonally-related, like during pregnancy or menopause. Although that sweating can be more temporary, it’s no less difficult to live with — just ask any pregnant person who is experiencing night sweats!
How do you know if your sweating is normal or not — especially in the dog days of summer? Ballard says, “Generally, if sweating is interfering with your life, causing you stress/anxiety or embarrassment that’s beyond what we typically consider to be normal and expected in day-to-day life (as a reaction to stress, exercise, or to maintain body temperature), it’s excessive. If you feel like your quality of life and your life choices and your relationships and achievements (at school, at work) are being negatively impacted by excessive sweating, it’s time to get help.” This goes for non-sweating too — if you’ve noticed any type of sudden change in how much your body sweats, you should visit a healthcare professional.
You’ll be asked questions about your family history, where and when you tend to sweat, the medications and supplements you take, and more. A younger onset of excessive sweating (during the child or teen years) is more likely to be hyperhidrosis. There are several treatments you can try if it turns out you have hyperhidrosis, including medication, skin wipes, and more. Surgery is an option, too, although most often reserved for very drastic cases.
There’s also the very real possibility that the sweat your body is producing is on the spectrum of normal, even if it seems like you’re swimming in it. Do your own research (the International Hyperhidrosis Society’s website is a great resource), ask informed questions, and advocate for yourself.