Sweating is natural. It serves an important purpose. But sometimes sweating can be bad or indicate that bad things are happening. Here are nine sweaty questions. The answers are important to anyone concerned about sweat.
- Do I have primary hyperhidrosis?
- Do I have secondary hyperhidrosis?
- What about night sweats?
- What causes my sweat to smell bad?
- Why do I sweat when I eat?
- Is my medicine making me sweat a lot?
- Is it bad to sweat when I’m nervous and stressed?
- Is sweat bad for my hair and scalp?
- Is sweat bad for my skin?
Good Sweat vs. Bad Sweat
As a normal bodily function, sweating is natural and helps to regulate body temperature. When body temperature rises due to exercise or a hot environment, your nervous system signals the sweat glands and they secrete sweat to the skin’s surface. There, the moisture evaporates and cools the body. That’s good.
Unfortunately, sweating can also occur when we’re nervous or stressed. That’s normal too. But nervous sweat is bad sweat. And it’s annoying and embarrassing.
Not all sweating is normal. Abnormal or excessive sweating, when not needed to regulate body temperature, signals that something is wrong. Let’s take a closer look at some of those “bad sweat” situations.
Is it bad to sweat a lot?
You were born with somewhere between two and four million sweat glands located all over your body. Everyone is different and the number you have will influence, in part, how much you sweat.
Women have more sweat glands than men. Men’s sweat glands are normally more active and produce more sweat. No surprise there. You may have discovered this yourself the last time you rode in a crowded subway car or bus with a bunch of burly guys. Why can’t more men use deodorant?
There are also two different types of sweat glands, apocrine glands and eccrine. Eccrine glands are all over your body. Apocrine glands are located on the scalp, armpits and genital area. There’s no such thing as a bad sweat gland.
As your body temperature rises, your automatic nervous system triggers these glands to release salty liquid, mostly water, to the skin’s surface for evaporative cooling. Sweating cannot be consciously controlled. That’s the problem. And, as we all know, anxiety, fear, anger and embarrassment can signal the sweat glands to work overtime. The result is bad sweat.
Let’s take a closer look at the situations when sweating is bad.
Do I have primary hyperhidrosis?
Profuse sweating or excessive sweating is hyperhidrosis. The word “hyperhidrosis” means too much (hyper) sweating (hidrosis). If you suffer from hyperhidrosis you produce four to five times more sweat than normal. That’s bad sweat, but you probably already knew that.
Primary hyperhidrosis (also known as focal hyperhidrosis) is a physiological problem. Those who suffer from it will confess that it also messes up their quality of life – psychologically, emotionally and socially. It’s a silent handicap. Almost half of those with hyperhidrosis suffer in silence for years before seeking help.
Hyperhidrosis affects nearly 15 million people in the United States. It affects men and women equally. 65% experience excessive sweating of the underarms (axillary hyperhidrosis). Other areas of the body often affected by hyperhidrosis are the hands (palmar hyperhidrosis), the feet (plantar hyperhidrosis), and face/forehead (craniofacial hyperhidrosis). Cold, clammy handshakes, sweaty feet and sweat cascading in torrents from the forehead are all equally unpleasant and emotionally distressing.
Now the good news. While there is no known cure, there are several effective treatments for primary hyperhidrosis. The simplest, least expensive and often the most effective is applying a clinical strength antiperspirant like Sweatblock. Because it’s applied using a towelette, it can be used anywhere on the body. Normally one application will last four to seven days. Antiperspirants block secretion of the targeted sweat glands.
Other treatments include topical creams, nerve-blocking medications, Botox injections, and invasive surgeries and procedures. These are reserved for extreme cases when simpler remedies are not effective. Some have serious side effects. Injections, microwave treatments and surgeries are all expensive and may not be covered by health insurance.
Do I have secondary hyperhidrosis?
The second type of hyperhidrosis is secondary hyperhidrosis, also known as generalized hyperhidrosis. Sufferers from this type of profuse sweating experience bad sweating all over the body as opposed to excessive sweating in a specific area.
Secondary hyperhidrosis is caused by another, usually unrelated, medical condition or side effect of a medication. Once the underlying problem is discovered and treated, the sweating stops. Conditions or diseases that can cause secondary hyperhidrosis include diabetes, gout, heart failure, cancer and obesity.
If you are experiencing excessive sweating over large areas of your body and also have one of these conditions, you likely have secondary hyperhidrosis.
What about night sweats?
What are night sweats? It’s not uncommon for us to experience night sweats when we’re sick or during hot summer nights. Changing body temperature during the night is a normal part of the sleep cycle and can cause temporary sweating. Removing a blanket or shedding those flannel pajamas can cure this kind of night sweats.
But severe and chronic night sweats, the kind when you wake-up with wet sheets and your body drenched with sweat, are not part of normal sleep. This is another sign of secondary hyperhidrosis and probably caused by an unrelated condition. Or, it could be a sign of a side effect caused by a prescription drug? Here are some of the probable suspects.
Some of the common drugs that have been associated with night sweats are:
- Antidepressants such as Protriptyline and Nortriptyline
- Anti-inflammatory drugs, the nonsteroidal type
- Blood pressure medicines
- Medicines that treat dry mouth like Pilocarpine
- Some cancer treatments
- Oral diabetes medicines and prescription insulin
Some dietary supplements such as zinc and iron have been known to be the culprits behind night sweats too.
Medical conditions that can cause night sweats include:
- Menopause and pregnancy. The hormonal changes that assault women as they experience menopause can cause hot flashes and heavy sweating at night. Carrying the additional weight of a developing baby can make night sweats an unwanted side effect of pregnancy.
- Infections. Abnormal night sweats can be caused by infections such as tuberculosis, HIV and bacterial infections.
- Cancer. People who have undiagnosed cancer often complain of symptoms including fever and excessive sweating. The most common type of cancer known to produce these problems is lymphoma, a cancer of the blood.
- Hyperthyroidism. An overactive thyroid gland can case nocturnal sweating.
- Hormone disorders. There are other hormonal disorders (other than menopause) that can cause night sweats. These include carcinoid syndrome and pheochromocytoma.
- Neurologic conditions. Stroke and neuropathy are among the neurologic conditions that can cause nocturnal sweating.
- Alcoholism. Alcohol consumption increases your heart rate and expands the blood vessels in the skin, which can trigger unwanted sweating. Night sweating is a common symptom of alcohol withdrawal.
Again, the key to overcoming nocturnal bad sweat is to identify what’s really going on.
What causes my sweat to smell bad?
We’ve all been victims. Some of us have been perpetrators. In some way, we’ve all experienced bad body odor. At times the stench is overwhelming and we ask ourselves, “Why does my sweat smell so bad?” Well, all sweat doesn’t. But when combined with just the right ingredients and conditions, bad sweat becomes a powerful deterrent to positive social interaction. Whew!
Here are some of the most common causes and contributing factors to bad body odor.
Human nature. As mentioned previously, the naturally occurring apocrine glands in the skin are clustered in the groin, armpits, genitals and to a lesser extent, the rest of the skin. These sweat glands are chiefly responsible for body odor because the sweat they produce contains high levels of protein. Once sweat reaches the surface, bacteria begin breaking down these proteins. And, that’s what causes sweat to smell so bad. If you suffer from hyperhidrosis, the abundance of excess sweat makes matters that much worse.
What causes smelly feet? Now there’s a universal experience. Have you ever asked, “Why do my feet sweat so bad?” Unless you live in the tropics, you probably wear shoes and socks. Encasing our feet in fabric and leather (or canvass) makes it difficult for sweat to evaporate. So, the ever-present bacteria have much more to work with. It’s a veritable bacteria buffet. This jungle-like environment also raises the possibility of fungi which can also give off more bad smelling stuff.
Foods. If you share an office space with someone who eats a lot of exotic or spicy foods, you know the meaning of bad sweat. You can smell today what they ate yesterday. Foods like onions, garlic, curry and other pungent spices are exuded through the pores in the skin and can make sweat smell even more, shall we say… fragrant? And it can take days for the unwanted odors to subside.
Do you like fries with that? If so that could be making things worse too. Oils used in fried foods and baked goods can easily go rancid. That causes poor digestion and can add to the bad smelling sweat problem.
Your sweet-tooth. Bacteria are as addicted to sugar as we are. Eating and drinking lots of sugary treats can cause an overgrowth of yeast. Yeast turns sugar into alcohol and alcohol can make you smell like a bouquet of stinkweed. Add flatulence from eating too much sugar into the mix and that makes for a potent weapon.
Fishy smelling sweat. Some people have difficulty metabolizing large amounts of choline. The result is fishy smelling body odor that can be a real turn-off. Foods containing large amounts of choline are liver, salmon, eggs, grass-fed beef, turkey, navy beans and chickpeas.
Another fishy body odor problem is called Fish Odor Syndrome. It’s rare and its only symptom is an offensive body odor that smells like rotting fish. It’s caused by excessive secretion of trimethylaminuria into the sweat, urine and breath of those who suffer from this medical condition. Diet restrictions, acid lotions and soaps, antibiotics and other medicines are the treatments.
That great-looking new shirt or blouse. No one likes working out in polyester. Natural fabrics like cotton, linen and even wool wick sweat away from your skin and allow it to evaporate. On the other hand, manmade fibers like polyester, nylon and rayon look great, but they repel moisture allowing it to pool where you don’t want it to. The buildup of unwanted sweat promotes and amplifies the bad body odor process and stains your clothing. Bad sweat loves artificial fibers.
Why do I sweat when I eat?
Spicy foods. Tell me if this sounds familiar. You’re eating a bowl of 5-alarm chili or maybe a jalapeño pepper-laced Mexican dish. You suddenly break out in a hot profuse sweat around your temples and forehead. This is gustatory sweating and it’s totally normal when eating hot, spicy foods.
Gustatory hyperhidrosis. But, there are some people who sweat excessively when eating any food, even ice cream. Some sweat profusely just thinking about food. It’s called gustatory hyperhidrosis or Frey’s Syndrome. It’s extremely embarrassing. Those who suffer from this malady may shun social functions involving food to avoid emotional trauma.
Many cases of gustatory sweating occur as a result of surgery or damage to a parotid gland. Most of us have a pair of parotid glands with one located on each side of the face just below and in front of our ears. These are the largest salivary glands. When we eat or when we prepare to eat, these glands spring into action.
If one of these glands is damaged due to surgery, disease or infection, nearby nerves can be affected. As these nerves regenerate they can become mixed up and confused. When this happens, a person can begin sweating instead of salivating. This is Frey’s Syndrome and it usually affects just one side of the face.
Abnormal sweating when eating can also occur for no known reason or can be a result of secondary hyperhidrosis. Diabetes, chronic headaches, shingles, herpes and Parkinson’s have all been known to cause gustatory sweating.
There are treatments that can help. Clinical strength antiperspirants like Sweatblock can provide significant relief. Botox injections can provide relief for a couple of months. Botox has not been approved by the FDA for treatment of Frey’s Syndrome so its use is considered “off label.”
Is my medicine making me sweat a lot?
Excessive sweating as a side effect of taking prescription medicines is not uncommon. Several hundred prescription drugs have been identified that can cause unwanted sweating.
- Analgesic pain medicines. The most common analgesics known to cause excessive sweating are Celebrex, Vicodin, prescription Aleve, Midol, Vioxx, Ultram, OxyContin, Methadone and fentanyl-based drugs. There are many, many more.
- Cardiovascular drugs. Certain cardiovascular drugs can cause sweating in some patients. The list is far too long to note here, but some of the more prevalent are Bumex, Cardura, Zestril and Altace. Several NIFEdipine and verapamil drugs also make the list.
- Antidepressants. Many commonly prescribed antidepressant drugs note excessive sweating as a side effect. These come in two major categories– Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs).
- SSRI drugs that can cause excessive sweating, by brand name, are Celexa, Luvox, Lexapro, Prozac, Zoloft and Paxil. The SNRI antidepressants are Cymbalta and Effexor. Norpramin, a neuropsychiatric drug, can cause sweating in a high number of patients taking it.
- Hormonal drugs. Secondary hyperhidrosis is sometimes caused by hormonal imbalances. Certain drugs given to patients to balance hormonal levels may also lead to profuse sweating. These include epinephrine-based medications, thyroid medicines, some birth control pills, testosterone drugs and vasopressins.
Is it bad to sweat when I’m nervous and stressed?
There is nothing more common than nervous sweating. It’s a natural fight or flight response. It happens to all of us whether we suffer from hyperhidrosis or not.
It happens when we go on first date or when we speak in front of a group. It happens when we’re summoned to a meeting with the boss. It can happen when we’re late and stuck in traffic. There are a thousand other situations that lead to bad sweat caused by nervous anxiety.
We’re all in the same boat. We all want to stop nervous and anxious sweating. Whether you suffer from hyperhidrosis or you’re a normal sweater, there are things you can do to curb that nervous sweat.
Tips to reduce anxious sweating.
- Relax. Let your hands and arms breath. Unclench your fists. Take a few deep, cleansing breaths. Avoid things that stress you out if possible.
- Meditate. Use meditation to calm your mind and overcome irrational fears. If you can trick your mind into not “fighting or flying” when you’re in potentially stressful situation, you can reduce a lot of nervous sweat.
- Watch your weight. Body weight plays an important role in your sweating response. People who struggle with their weight have a higher core temperature.
- Exercise. Physical exercise is an effective anti-anxiety trick. It releases endorphins which act to calm your mood and make you less prone to nervous feelings. Exercise causes sweat, so don’t exercise just prior to something you’re doing that you want to be free of sweat.
- Wear breathable clothing. Natural fabrics like cotton and wool will allow your body to “breathe” and help dissipate sweat. Artificial fabrics like polyester, nylon and rayon will make you feel hotter. They repel sweat and make evaporation difficult. Choose your wardrobe wisely.
- Clinical Strength Antiperspirant. A strong antiperspirant like Sweatblock can help reduce excessive sweat due to anxiety and stress. Antiperspirants are some of the safest and most effective ways to combat sweat. Other excessive sweating treatments can be more costly, invasive, and bring a whole host of nasty side effects.
Is sweat bad for my hair and scalp?
Lots of sweat can be bad for your scalp and hair. It can lead to hair loss.
There are studies that indicate that when lactic acid in sweat mixes with keratin in the hair, it can lead to damaged hair and hair loss. Even worse, if there is an accumulation of bacteria on the scalp, excessive head sweating can lead to fungal infections. Yuk. Wash your hair often.
Is sweat bad for my skin?
Bad sweat can be bad for your skin. People who suffer from excessive sweating, especially on the face and forehead, can be more prone to skin infections. Chronically moist skin promotes the growth of bacteria that cause skin infections.
- Athlete’s foot is a fungal infection that occurs when foot sweating is excessive. It usually starts between the toes.
- Jock itch (tinea cruris) is a cousin to athlete’s foot and is a fungal infection. It thrives in moist environments. Sweating doesn’t help.
- Maceration is the scientific terms for the wet, mushy appearance your skin can have when it’s perpetually moist. The general skin breakdown can promote other unwanted skin conditions.
The bottom line
Let’s circle back to the question at hand:
Can sweating be bad for you? Not usually, but when it becomes excessive, abnormal, or socially destructive – YES, it’s bad.
Excessive sweating causes a multitude of problems. Untreated hyperhidrosis causes stress, embarrassment, social seclusion, and anxiety. These are just the emotional and social problems associated with bad sweat.
Abnormal sweating can also be a companion to other diseases or disorders. It might be a sign that you’re eating or drinking things you shouldn’t. It could be a side effect of medication. Whatever the cause, there is hope.
There are treatments that can reduce or eliminate bad sweat. Find one that works for you.