Sweating is a bodily function that helps regulate your body temperature. Also called perspiration, sweating is the release of a salt-based fluid from your sweat glands.
Changes in your body temperature, the outside temperature, or your emotional state can cause sweating. The most common areas of sweating on the body include:
- palms of the hands
- soles of the feet
Sweating in normal amounts is an essential bodily process. “Normal” sweating can be as much as a quart of fluid per day, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH, 2011). Lack of sweat or excessive sweating can cause problems. The absence of sweat can be dangerous because your risk of overheating increases. Excessive sweating may be more psychologically damaging than physically.
Your body is equipped with an average of three million sweat glands. Eccrine sweat glands are located all over your body and produce a lightweight, odorless sweat.
Apocrine sweat glands are concentrated in the hair follicles of your scalp, armpits, and groin. These glands release a heavier, fat-laden sweat that carries a distinct odor. The smell, referred to as “body odor,” occurs when apocrine sweat breaks down and mixes with the bacteria on your skin.
Your autonomic nervous system controls your sweating function. This is the part of your nervous system that functions on its own, without your conscious control. When the weather is hot or your body temperature rises due to exercise or fever, sweat is released through ducts in your skin. It moistens the surface of your body and cools you down as it evaporates.
Sweat is made mostly of water, but about one percent of sweat is a combination of salt and fat (NIH, 2011).
Elevated temperatures are the primary cause of sweating, but you can perspire for other reasons, too. Anger, fear, embarrassment, anxiety, or emotional stress can make you break out in sweat.
Sweating may also be a response to the foods you eat. This type of perspiration is called gustatory sweating, and can be provoked by:
- spicy foods
- caffeinated drinks including soda, coffee, and tea
- alcoholic beverages
Sweating may also be caused by medication use and certain illnesses, such as:
- fever and fever-reducing drugs
- hypoglycemia (low blood sugar levels)
- painkillers, including morphine
- synthetic thyroid hormones
- complex regional pain syndrome (a rare form of chronic pain that usually affects an arm or leg)
The hormonal fluctuations associated with menopause can also trigger sweating. Menopausal women often experience “night sweats” and sweating during hot flashes.
A normal amount of sweating generally does not require medical treatment. However, you can take steps to make yourself more comfortable and minimize your sweating:
- Wear several light layers of clothing that allow your skin to breathe.
- Remove layers of clothing as you heat up.
- Wash dried sweat off of your face and body for optimum comfort.
- Change out of sweaty clothing to reduce the risk of bacterial or yeast infections.
- Drink water or sports drinks to replace fluids and electrolytes lost through sweating.
- Apply an underarm antiperspirant or deodorant to reduce odor and control sweating.
- Remove foods from your diet that increase your sweating.
If illness or medications cause uncomfortable sweating, talk to your doctor about alternative treatments.
Sweating may indicate a medical problem if it occurs with other symptoms. Let your doctor know if you experience:
- chest pain
- shortness of breath
- continued perspiration for an extended period of time without cause
Losing weight from excessive sweating is not normal and should be checked by a doctor.
Hyperhidrosis is the condition of excessive sweating from the armpits, hands, and feet. This condition can be embarrassing and may prevent you from going about your daily routines.
Conversely, anhidrosis is the absence of sweat. Sweat is your body’s way of releasing excess heat. You can become dehydrated and at a higher-than-normal risk for heatstroke if you suffer from anhidrosis.
Consult your healthcare provider if you feel you sweat more than normal, or do not sweat at all.