Your Health A-Z

Is excessive sweating a medical problem?

It’s not life-threatening but being constantly drenched in perspiration can cause extreme embarrassment and painful skin conditions. It could also be a sign of an underlying medical problem.

Do you always have to wipe your hand before offering it to shake? Do you shudder at the thought of hugging someone? ‘Known as hyperhidrosis, excessive sweating is likely to cause you a certain degree of psychological distress,’ says Dr Muhammed-Ameen Moosa, a dermatologist at Mediclinic Limpopo.

‘Sufferers often experience a reduced quality of life, limiting their social and professional interactions because of embarrassment. It can also be a warning sign of other conditions such as thyroid problems, diabetes or tuberculosis. In some cases, excessive sweating can also be caused by a reaction to certain medication.’

Dr Moosa explains that the classification of this uncomfortable symptom can be puzzling. If it is localised to on one or more specific areas of your body (such as your underarms, palms, soles or face) it’s called focal hyperhidrosis. When it affects your entire body, it’s known as generalised hyperhidrosis.

Then, if the hyperhidrosis is the main problem, without any underlying cause, it’s referred to as primary or essential. It usually begins in childhood and may be hereditary. Sufferers usually don’t experience heavy sweating during sleep. Hyperhidrosis due to underlying medical problems or medication is called secondary hyperhidrosis.

As Dr Moosa explains, treatment options for focal hyperhidrosis include over-the-counter aluminium chloride anti-perspirants (not deodorant) and / or Botox (onabotulinumtoxin A) injections. ‘These block the nerves that trigger sweat glands and repeat treatments are necessary. Alicholinergic drugs (that block a particular neurotransmitter in the central nervous system) might also be prescribed. And sufferers should steer clear of synthetic materials when it come to shoes, socks and clothing as these fibres may worsen symptoms.’

Unlike those with primary hyperhidrosis, people with secondary generalised hyperhidrosis sweat too much because of a variety of underlying health conditions. These include – but aren’t limited to – obesity, gout, anxiety, rheumatoid arthritis, menopause, diabetes, mercury poisoning, heart disease, tuberculosis, alcohol abuse, an overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism), low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) or even malignancies like lymphoma

‘Usually, if you have an underlying medical condition, you’ll also have other symptoms, such as weight change, dizziness, fatigue, loss of appetite or headaches,’ Dr Moosa adds. ‘Certain medications, such as antidepressants or zinc supplements can cause your secondary hyperhidrosis, so it is important to seek professional help to determine the cause.’

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.