Many of us can remember breaking out in a cold sweat before delivering our first assignment in speech class, or rubbing the moisture off our palms before holding hands with our high school boyfriend. But for those who suffer these experiences frequently and dramatically, overactive sweat glands are no laughing matter.
In medical circles, the condition is called “hyperhidrosis,” and the generally accepted definition is excessive sweating beyond what’s is required to cool the body. Hyperhidrosis tends to run in families, and while the condition was once thought to be rare, according to the Mayo Clinic around 2.8% of the U.S. population has hyperhidrosis.
How can you tell if your own pattern of sweating is beyond normal? You may have hyperhidrosis if you experience:
• Excessive sweating once a week or more without apparent reason
• Sweating that’s noticeable, to the point of soaking through clothes
• Excessive moisture on your hands, feet, armpits and/or face and head
Doctors generally believe that episodes of excessive sweating are triggered by emotions, but they don’t exactly understand why. They do know how to treat hyperhidrosis, however. Most physicians will recommend a patient first try a clinical strength over-the-counter antiperspirant. If this option proves ineffective, or if the patient has already gone that route, a doctor will probably prescribe a topical treatment with aluminum chloride. He or she may prescribe an oral medication instead or in addition to topical treatment.
A treatment that works for some people, according to the Mayo Clinic, is “iontophoresis.” Patients use a battery-powered device to zap hands, feet or armpits with a low level of electrical current. The procedure needs to be repeated after several weeks.
BOTOX Cosmetic® has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for hyperhidrosis. It can be injected into the armpits or palms to block the nerves that connect to sweat glands. This remedy is also temporary.
When all else fails, surgery can be an option. Mayo Clinic physicians perform surgery on 30 to 40 patients each year using one of three approaches: interrupting nerve signals that trigger sweating by placing tiny clips on the nerves, severing the nerves completely or removing sweat glands.
Note that excessive sweating can be a symptom or secondary effect of a serious condition such as malignant cancer or a neurological or endocrine disorder. If you suspect you have hyperhidrosis but you're not sure about consulting a doctor, this is another good reason to make an appointment.