HEALTHY LIVING

What's 'Normal' When It Comes To Sweat?

01/30/2014 08:16 am ET | Updated Jan 30, 2014
Steve Prezant via Getty Images

So you're a sweater -- and we're not talking the warm and fuzzy variety. (If you are, however, capable of sweating through a sweater, keep reading.)

The following scenarios may describe you:
- You've stopped buying white shirts because of the sweat stains that inevitably make an appearance in the armpits.
- An ever-so-slight rise in room temperature is all it takes to get your sweat glands going.
- You're self-conscious shaking hands with someone when it's remotely hot lest you leave a, shall we say, "moist" impression.
- You're afraid to get too close to people, in case they get a whiff of your stinky sweat.

But does this make you abnormal? Are some people just destined to sweat more than others? And what remedies are available, if you're self-conscious of the amount of fluids being secreted from your skin's surface?

We talked to experts in several sweat-related fields -- including neurology, dermatology and surgery -- to get to the root of why some people sweat more than others, why we sweat more in certain situations, and how to deal.

Firstly, keep in mind that everyone sweats. Dr. Mark Denis P. Davis, M.D., a professor of dermatology at the Mayo Clinic, explains that perspiration is "a normal body function involving the release of fluid from the sweat glands of the skin." It's our body's way of maintaining body temperature by acting as a "cooling" function.

Sweat is comprised mostly of water, but also contains sugar, salts and chemicals (such as ammonia). Sweat itself does not smell, but when it mixes with bacteria that's already on your skin, it can leave an unpleasant odor.

In general, there are two kinds of sweating: thermoregulatory sweating, and emotional sweating. Dr. Robert Fealey, an assistant professor of neurology at the Mayo Clinic, explained that the latter "can be caused by stress or excitement," and usually only occurs on the palms (clammy hands, anyone?), soles, armpits and forehead, though some people may experience emotional sweating all over their bodies. Meanwhile, thermoregulatory sweating occurs when there's a rise in core or skin temperature.

Some people do sweat more than others. If you think you sweat more than the average Joe, you're probably not just being extra self-conscious. Some people really do produce more sweat than others. And it doesn't always mean that something is wrong with you -- "healthy individuals can sweat heavily if frequently exposed to increased environmental heat and humidity," Fealey explained.

However, why some people tend to sweat a little more than others is "essentially unknown," Davis said.

For some people, the sweat glands are overactive to the point where it's an actual medical condition, called hyperhidrosis. Dr. Thomas Watson, M.D., an associate professor of surgery at the University of Rochester Medical Center who surgically treats hyperhidrosis, explained that there are different kinds of the condition, depending on what part of the body it affects. For instance, palmar hyperhidrosis is when there is excessive sweating of the hands, while plantar hyperhidrosis is excessive sweating of the feet. Axillary hyperhidrosis is excessive sweating of the armpits. When hyperhidrosis is caused by something else, like a a disease or condition (such as hyperthyroidism) or because of a medication, it's called secondary hyperhidrosis.

Unlike people who are just on the sweatier side of average, though, those with hyperhidrosis will excessively sweat even when there is no reason to -- there is no increase in temperature, and they haven't engaged in any rigorous activity. "A lot of people will say to us, their hands are so sweaty they can't write because the page gets soaked with the ink," Watson said. "It smears. It's very disabling to them at work."

However, Watson said, there is no definitive diagnostic test for hyperhidrosis -- "you can't define it, but you know it when you see it." But still, there's "no way to quantitate sweating, and therefore, the diagnosis is very subjective. What one person may call hyperhidrosis, another person may not," he said. The best way to tell if you need to take action is to differentiate between your sweating being a nuisance, or actually affecting your daily life.

Watson explained that there are "levels" of treatment for people with hyperhidrosis, where if one level doesn't work, a person may opt to try the next one. Botox can also help some people with excessive armpit sweating, but the effects will eventually fade, so it's not considered a long-term solution, he said. Ultimately, a person may opt for surgery, which entails cutting the nerves to the sweat glands.

It's a sad truth, but thinking about sweating may make you sweat even more. That's because "sweating is mediated by the sympathetic nervous system -- which, if stimulated in response to 'fight or flight,' causes you to sweat," Davis explained.

And some people also sweat more when they get motion sick. You can thank the prime motion sickness symptom of nausea for that. "Oftentimes when people get nauseated, it's your parasympathetic nervous system" that becomes more activated, Watson said.

If it sometimes seems like your sweating is "delayed" -- like you only start sweating bullets after you've already climbed the five flights of stairs -- you're not imagining it. That's because "it takes a little bit of time for your body to react to the thermoregulation," Watson explained. "As you exercise, your body is generating heat, but it takes your body time to recognize that and respond."

So what are you supposed to do if you sweat a lot? Use antiperspirant, for starters. If your feet get extra-sweaty, the Mayo Clinic recommends changing socks more often, and choosing socks made of cotton and wool and shoes made of natural materials (like leather) to promote dryness. The same concept goes for clothing -- cotton, wool and silk fabrics allow your skin to breathe more, while moisture-wicking fabrics could be good for exercise. In addition, regular bathing helps keep the sweat-related odors to a minimum.

Davis also noted that antiperspirant can be applied to other parts of the body aside from the armpits to help reduce sweating in those areas.

If you find that your sweating is often in response to anxiety or emotional situations, you can also try using relaxation techniques like yoga or meditation to calm yourself down, according to the Mayo Clinic.

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