Why Do I Sweat So Much?

Excessive sweating can be uncomfortable and cause embarrassment in social situations. But what are the potential causes of this condition?

The medical term for excessive sweating is hyperhidrosis, and one 2016 study estimated that approximately 15 million people suffer from it in the United States alone.

The study noted that a majority of these people experience severe, excessive sweating in at least one body area, but despite this many did not discuss the issue with a health care professional.

The authors said one of the main reasons for this was the belief that hyperhidrosis was not a medical condition and that no treatment options existed, indicating a need for greater awareness of the problem.

A man sweating heavily
Stock image showing a man sweating heavily. Certain medical conditions could be the cause of excessive sweating. iStock

Is Sweating Normal?

Sweating or perspiration is an important biological mechanism that helps to regulate our body temperature and cool us down when we are too hot—for example when temperatures are high or when we are working out.

Sweating, in most cases, is a completely normal body process. When our body temperature rises, the nervous system sends signals to the sweat glands in our skin to produce sweat, which is mostly composed of water.

This liquid on the surface of our skin promotes heat loss through evaporation, helping to cool the body down.

The sweat glands can also be triggered by other factors, including feelings of stress, nervousness, anger, or fear; eating spicy foods; food allergies or intolerances; and drinking alcohol, among others.

What is Excessive Sweating?

Excessive sweating, however, is generally thought of as abnormally high levels of perspiration that are out of proportion to any given physical activity, emotional trigger or a hot environment.

People who experience excessive sweating may find that they perspire so much that the condition interferes with their daily activities, Anthony Rossi, an American Academy of Dermatology board-certified dermatologist told Newsweek.

Hyperhidrosis can be categorized into two groups: primary focal and secondary generalized.

Excessive sweating
Stock image showing a woman sweating. What causes excessive sweating? iStock

"Primary focal hyperhidrosis is not caused by another medical condition and not a side effect of medications," Rossi said. "This occurs on very specific areas of the body hence the term 'focal.'"

"This primary form can begin childhood or adolescence, especially hyperhidrosis of the hands and feet. Interestingly, although people with primary focal hyperhidrosis have episodes of excessive sweating at least once a week, they usually do not experience excessive sweating while sleeping," he said.

"Primary focal hyperhidrosis may be inherited and many members of the same family may suffer from it," he added.

Is Sweating a Symptom of Anything Concerning?

Secondary generalized hyperhidrosis, meanwhile, is excessive sweating caused by another medical condition, or perspiration that is a side-effect of a medication.

"This sweating occurs on larger areas of the body or in a more 'generalized' distribution. People with this condition may also experience sweating while sleeping," Rossi said.

"For generalized secondary hyperhydrosis it is important to search for the reason or condition causing this."

There are many common medications, including some antidepressants, that can cause excessive sweating, and if you seek medical advice for this issue, it is important to tell your doctor what drugs and supplements you are taking.

However, it is important to note that generalized secondary hyperhidrosis can also be the result of certain underlying conditions, which in some cases could be serious, although these are often accompanied by other symptoms.

These underlying conditions include certain infectious diseases, cancer, neurological diseases, thyroid disease or other endocrine issues, heart disease, and women going through menopause.

"If the sweating is generalized and new, then it is important to see a doctor who can work out the issues," Rossi said. "If the sweating is new and focal, then it is also important. Even if you have primary focal hyperhidrosis of the hands and feet and it is now interfering with social activities or quality of life, these could all be reasons to see your doctor."

What Can I Do If I Sweat Too Much?

Treatments are available for primary focal hyperhidrosis, and these include prescription-strength anti-perspirants, oral anticholinergic medications, topical anticholinergic wipes, an energy based device called MiraDry, as well as botulinum toxin injections and iontophoresis—a procedure utilizing a device that delivers a mild electrical current to the body while the individual is submerged in water.

"For secondary generalized hyperhidrosis it is important to search and find the underlying cause and address this," Rossi said.