What is Hyperhidrosis?

Hyperhidrosis is a medical condition where the sweat glands become overactive, leading to excessive sweating. It can occur in just one area, such as the armpits, feet, or hands; or it can be general sweating over the entire body. Hyperhidrosis can happen to people of all ages and genders. It is estimated that the condition affects as many as 3% of all people, but many are never diagnosed because they are too embarrassed to talk about their symptoms with their doctor.

When excessive sweating is the main complaint and is not related to any other condition, it is called primary hyperhidrosis. There is no known cause, but it does tend to run in families. Secondary hyperhidrosis is sweating that is caused by another medical condition, such as anxiety, cancer, hyperthyroidism, or menopause. Sometimes treating the underlying condition can improve this type of sweating.

There are tests doctors can use to diagnose hyperhidrosis. One involves simply soaking up the perspiration with paper and then weighing the paper to measure how much extra sweat is being produced. Another test, called the starch-iodine test, involves covering the body with powder. This powder turns blue in any areas where sweat is produced.

Treatment depends on the severity of the hyperhidrosis and the areas affected. Some options are:
  • Prescription antiperspirants, which contain aluminum chloride and work by plugging the sweat ducts. This signals the sweat glands to decrease sweat production. They work for moderate cases of hyperhidrosis and are relatively affordable.
  • Iontophoresis, a procedure that uses small amounts of electricity and a tray of tap water to decrease production of sweat glands in the hands or feet.
  • Botox, which can be injected into the nerves that control sweat glands in the underarms.
  • Sympathectomy, a surgery for severe cases that can be performed to cut the nerves that stimulate sweat production. Sympathectomy is most effective for hyperhidrosis of the hands. It may cause new symptoms of sweating elsewhere on the body.
  • Surgery to remove sweat glands, most often in the underarms.

Hyperhidrosis is a serious medical condition that causes both physical and emotional distress. Treatments are available, and support groups exist to help patients cope.