You Definitely Shouldn’t Be Sweating Through Your Clothes When You're Not Doing Anything

Photo credit: Patrik Giardino - Getty Images
Photo credit: Patrik Giardino - Getty Images

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Whether you are crushing it at the gym, getting your namaste on during a hot yoga class, or hitting the local running trails, it can feel good to break into a sweat every now and then. But sometimes you find yourself drenched when you least expect it. Think: during those board meetings, your morning commute on public transit in the middle of summer, and dinner dates with your latest flame. These experiences may leave you wondering, Why do I sweat so much?

The good news is sweating is not usually a cause for concern. A number of totally harmless reasons could explain those smelly pits and drippy knot. Your diet and lifestyle may be to blame.

That said, sometimes excessive sweating could be a sign of an underlying condition. Feeling drenched every day and don't know why? Learn more about what you could be dealing with and what you can do about it.

Meet the experts: Debra Jailman, MD, is a dermatologist with over 25 years of experience and an assistant professor of dermatology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. She is also a diplomate for several professional organizations, including the American Board of Dermatology and National Board of Medical Examiners.

David E. Bank, MD, is a nationally recognized expert in dermatology. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology and a founding member of the Amonette Circle of the Skin Cancer Foundation. He has been involved in research on dermatology treatments.

First off, why do I sweat?

As stinky as it might be sometimes, it's important to remember that sweating is completely normal. Essential even. “We sweat to help regulate our body temperature,” says Debra Jaliman, MD, an assistant professor of dermatology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “It allows our body to cool off through evaporation.”

You only see those annoying beads of perspiration when the output exceeds the rate of evaporation—something that can be caused by a sunny day or mountain of stress. Feeling like you're sweating buckets under these kinds of conditions is not uncommon and doesn't usually point to a serious health problem.

So, how much sweat is too much sweat?

There's a wide range of what's considered normal: People can sweat less than a liter, or up to several liters per day, based on the demands their body is under. So, if you're a regular exerciser or work or live in hot and humid conditions, expect to sweat a lot on the reg. That's par for the course.

But while sweating is totally natural, there are occasions where your body sweats more than it needs to. Some 220 million people worldwide (about three percent of the population) suffer from excessive sweatiness, a.k.a. hyperhidrosis. The glands that are responsible for sweating are called apocrine glands, and in those with hyperhidrosis, these glands are overactive, producing much more sweat than is needed to cool the body.

The condition can be generalized (affecting the entire body) or localized to particular parts of the body. Generalized hyperhidrosis is often a symptom of an underlying health condition, including metabolic disorders (such as hyperthyroidism), diabetes, infections, or lymphatic tumors. Excessive sweating can also result from alcohol abuse or withdrawal, or be brought on by certain medications, particularly antidepressants. Anxiety and changes in hormones have also been linked to generalized hyperhidrosis.

Localized hyperhidrosis, on the other hand, is not usually a symptom of a condition. Most people associate it with extra sweaty pits, but only two percent of your body’s sweat glands are actually located there. That means localized hyperhidrosis can also occur in the feet, hands, head, and other parts of the body.

Because people have different sweat needs, it can be hard to definitively say how much sweat it takes to be considered excessive. So how do you know if you have a serious problem? A doc can confirm the diagnosis, but you might have hyperhidrosis if you find yourself sweating through your clothing, getting skin problems from excessive wetness, or sweating even when you aren’t exerting yourself.

Why do I sweat so easily?

If you are wondering why you sweat so easily, you are not alone. There are a few common reasons you sweat so easily, according to Victoria Weston, MD, the emergency medicine and immediate care director at Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital.

  • Too much alcohol: Alcohol consumption causes your blood vessels to dilate, which can then trigger excess sweating, explains Dr. Weston. Moderate alcohol intake can help reduce excess sweating.

  • Too much caffeine: Caffeinated beverages or foods, such as coffee or tea, can cause you to sweat more than normal. Since caffeine is a stimulant, which can raise your body temperature, it can cause you to sweat.

  • Hyperthyroidism: Endocrine problems, such as hyperthyroidism, can increase your metabolism, says Dr. Weston, which can lead to increased sweating.

  • Hormonal changes: Hormonal changes during menopause, your monthly menstrual cycle, and pregnancy can impact your body temperature. Rising levels of progesterone increase your metabolism and therefore your body temperature.

  • Illness: When you are sick and have a fever, your body tries to cool off by sweating.

  • Smoking: Nicotine, like alcohol and caffeine, is a stimulant. If you smoke, you tend to sweat more than those who don't.

What can I do to sweat less?

If your sweat is causing you stress and embarrassment, start with an at-home plan of attack by upping the kind of antiperspirant you use. “Patients can start with ‘clinical strength’ antiperspirants such as Degree, Secret, or Mitchum,” suggests David E. Bank, MD, an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center and the author of Beautiful Skin: Every Woman's Guide to Looking Her Best at Any Age.

“Specialized antiperspirants for excessive sweating such as Certain-Dri and prescription-strength Drysol have been on the market for years and are proven effective with regular use for many people with excessive sweating,” says Dr. Jaliman. For best effectiveness, she suggests applying the product at night. This gives the antiperspirant time to absorb into your skin and really begin to work.

Since 2004, Botox has been FDA-approved for treating severe sweating in both the underarms and palms, says Dr. Bank. Just as the famous face-freezer works to prevent those furrow lines from forming, Botox also temporarily blocks the release of the chemical that turns on your sweat glands. Botox injections have been shown to reduce sweating 82 to 87 percent, according to the International Hyperhidrosis Society. Patients see results, which typically last seven to 12 months, in just two to four days.

You don't need to suffer in silence.

The most important thing to remember? It's not "no big deal." Experts say that excessive sweating can significantly impact a person's quality of life, so it's important to address any and all concerns you have around your level of sweat. Medications for diabetes and thyroid disease, as well as certain high blood pressure and antidepressant medicines, can trigger excessive sweating. Heavy sweating can also be caused by infections, certain cancers, heart or lung disease, menopause, and sometimes even a stroke.

The bottom line: If your sweat is causing a serious problem in your life, talk to your doc.

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