Ask the doctor: What can I do about excessive sweating?

Ask the doctor

What can I do about excessive sweating?

Q. I seem to sweat a great deal from my hands and underarms, more than my friends do. Sometimes I can't write or shake hands because my palms are dripping with sweat. Is there anything I can do about this embarrassing problem?

A. Sweating that exceeds the needs of the body—medically termed hyperhidrosis—is actually fairly common, affecting 1%–3% of the population. Hyperhidrosis may be generalized but most often it involves the palms, underarms, feet, and groin. As you've discovered, it can take a social toll, making handshaking unpleasant and some handwork impossible. Underarm sweating may require you to change your blouse two or three times a day.

We need sweating to control body temperature; water evaporating from the skin cools the body. Sweating is under the control of the sympathetic nervous system, which orchestrates the body's reaction to stressful situations and emergencies—sometimes called the "fight or flight" response. To put the organs of the body on alert, the sympathetic nervous system uses chemical messengers. It activates the sweat glands through the chemical messenger acetylcholine. People with hyperhidrosis produce several times more sweat than normal because they are particularly sensitive to this signal. Hyperhidrosis seems to run in families, but we don't know much more about what causes it.

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