Sweat is produced by sweat glands, many of which are found in the armpits, the palms of our hands and soles of our feet. Sweat plays an important role when it comes to regulating and maintaining body temperature (thermoregulation). The hypothalamus is the part of the brain responsible for thermoregulation. When our body temperature increases as a result of physical exertion, for example, nerve impulses are sent to the hypothalamus which in turn activates perspiration. Once the body has rid itself of sweat, it can regain its normal temperature (37°C). Sweating is therefore essential to life.
Excessive sweating or hyperhidrosis is said to occur when the amount of sweat exceeds the quantity needed to regulate body temperature. It is most often the result of overactive sweat glands.
There are two types of hyperhidrosis: focal and generalized. Focal hyperhidrosis is limited to specific parts of the body. Areas most commonly affected are the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, armpits and groin. Nervousness, fear, caffeine, spicy foods, genetics and certain medications (acetaminophen, aspirin, insulin, etc.) can be the source of this sweating disorder.
One is said to have generalized hyperhidrosis when the disorder affects the entire body. Heat, fever, physical exertion, menopause and certain diseases (diabetes, hyperthyroidism, etc.) can cause generalized hyperhidrosis.
Persons most at risk
Certain individuals are more prone to developing hyperhidrosis than others. This includes persons who are obese, those with social phobia or those with family members who also have hyperhidrosis.
The most common symptoms of hyperhidrosis are:
- Excessive sweating in a specific area or over the entire body;
- Malaise (caused by heavy sweating);
- Decline or restraint of social activities;
- Difficulty grasping objects (due to sweating).
Excessive sweating also makes the skin more sensitive and prone to:
- Heat rash;
- Contact dermatitis;
- Unpleasant odours particularly foot odour.
If sudden and unexplainable hyperhidrosis occurs or if chest pain or general weakness is experienced, it is important to seek medical attention as quickly as possible.
Hyperhidrosis is diagnosed by a physician who will determine the presence of symptoms and inquire about family history. He may also refer you to a physician who specializes in treating excessive sweating.
The first treatment option involves the use of antiperspirant to reduce the amount of sweat produced or, deodorant to control unpleasant odours. If this proves unsuccessful, applying a thin layer of 20% aluminum chloride solution (Drysol™) is advised. Aluminum chloride blocks the channels that bring sweat to the surface of the skin. Another option is botulinum toxin (Botox™) injections to block the nerve impulses responsible for sweating.
Iontophoresis is another technique that can be administered by a dermatologist. It involves submerging the hands or feet in water and having a continuous, low voltage electric current flow through the water. This is said to interrupt the activity of the sweat glands and reduce the amount of sweat they produce. Certain medications can also be taken to alleviate symptoms of hyperhidrosis. And lastly, the surgical removal of a few sweat glands in specific areas, such as the armpits, may also be an option.
Certain steps can be taken to prevent excessive sweating. Firstly, given that nervousness causes sweating, it may be helpful to avoid stressful situations. Relaxation, yoga and breathing exercises may also help reduce episodes of hyperhidrosis.
Changes to one's diet should also be considered. Alcohol, coffee, soft drinks, tea, chocolate and spices can all cause excessive sweating and should therefore be consumed in moderation. It is also important to drink plenty of water since excessive sweating causes significant water loss (up to 1 litre an hour!).
Here are a few tips if you suffer from hyperhidrosis. It is important to:
- Wash regularly.
- Dry off properly after washing (to prevent unpleasant odours particularly foot odour).
- Aerate your feet several times throughout the day.
- Wear clothes made of natural fabrics (cotton, silk, etc.) as they breath better.
- Carry a change of clothing.
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