Hyperhidrosis: The Struggle Around Excessive Sweating Is Real

by Lisa Sadikman
Originally Published: 
A young woman's face experiencing Hyperhidrosis that causes excessive sweating
Yusuke Tadika / EyeEm / Getty Images

We’ve all experienced the sticky, sometimes odorous, discomfort of our own sweat. Like when we’re chasing down a renegade toddler, stressing out about the nap the baby just skipped, or just plain anxious about the state of world. If you’re human, you sweat. But what if you sweat excessively all the time?

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“I even sweat through my jeans,” says Tamar, who’s been dealing with excessive sweating, or hyperhidrosis, most of her adult life. “I call it ‘vagina soup’.”

Hyperhidrosis can be completely mortifying when it happens. Instead of responding to stimuli just enough to cool the body down, people with hyperhidrosis sweat more than needed. That’s because their sweat glands are constantly in hyperdrive. Even the slightest physical activity or emotional flicker can cause them to soak through their shirt or socks, make their palms perpetually slick or their face damp and shiny.

And yes, if the sweat glands in the groin are involved, they might experience vagina soup. In a culture where sweating is a distasteful state of affairs to be managed and “sweat shaming” is a thing, dealing with chronic excessive sweating is incredibly stressful and embarrassing.

Approximately 15.3 million people or 4.8% of the U.S. population live with the primary form of hyperhidrosis. Many others experience a secondary type as a side effect of medication or some other condition. Primary hyperhidrosis is the result of overactive sweat glands, usually the odorless ones, and involves limited areas like the underarms, palms, soles of the feet, and face and head. Secondary hyperhidrosis is more of an all-over body experience. Hyperhidrosis can surface during childhood or begin in adulthood.

My first episode of excessive sweating happened a few days after the birth of my first daughter. While trying to nurse, I began sweating profusely. It started behind my neck, then spread like a heat wave to my entire back, chest, and behind my thighs. Salty sweat ran down the sides of my face, dripping on to the baby’s head. I literally wiped myself down with the burp cloth.

Drenched and shaken, I thought something was horribly wrong with me. When I talked to my doctor, she said postpartum sweating was relatively common. The combination of hormones, excess pregnancy fluid, and stress around caring for my newborn triggered the secondary hyperhidrosis.

My unpredictable, excessive sweating lasted a few months and was caused by an underlying condition, namely postpartum motherhood. While I knew it would eventually go away, my short-lived hyperhidrosis definitely made me self-conscious. Anytime I went out in public, I worried the sweat under my arms, under my boobs, or across my poochy new mom tummy would soak through my T-shirt. Nervous enough trying to figure out how to care for my newborn, I couldn’t handle additional stress and spent much of those first few months with my daughter at home.

People who suffer from primary hyperhidrosis have to deal with that same anxiety every single day. According to a 2016 study published by the International Hyperhidrosis Society, patients surveyed reported “decreased confidence, unhappiness, and depression,” while 70% of those surveyed said they need to change clothes frequently due to discomfort and embarrassment. Decisions about clothing material, style, and color, what activities to participate in, what foods to avoid, and even career choices add extra stress to a person’s daily life.

How do you know if you have primary hyperhidrosis? According to dermatologist Dr. Dee Anna Glaser, one of the founders of the independent, non-profit International Hyperhidrosis Society, ask yourself if you’ve experienced visible, excessive sweating for at least six months without apparent reason on the hands, feet, armpits, or face. If you have, see if you meet the additional criteria listed on the International Hyperhidrosis Society’s website.

What makes the problem of excessive sweating particularly, um, sticky is that it isn’t easily managed with extra antiperspirant. Instead, people need to resort to oral medications, topical creams, electrical therapy, and surgical options, laser therapy, or micro-focused ultrasound treatment. In 2004, the FDA approved Botox injections, which block the chemical that activates sweat glands.

“I’ve done Botox under my arms, and it worked pretty well,” says Tamar. “I talked to my doctor about using it in “other” places, but I didn’t want to risk that.” Yeah, I wouldn’t want a needle near my vagina either, swamp ass or not.

In addition to different levels of risk and effectiveness, treatments can be costly and may not be covered by health insurance — not surprising given the current administration’s unsupportive stance on health care in general. For example, while the cost of Botox treatments depends on the size of the area being treated, the estimated cost for treating both underarms is around $1,000 and lasts anywhere from 7 to 16 months, according to the International Hyperhidrosis Society. Excessive sweating is treatable, but it’s not easy, and it’s certainly not cheap.

If you run into someone who looks like they suffer from hyperhidrosis, check yourself before you act all grossed out. They’re probably extremely self-conscious about their situation and can’t control what’s happening in the moment. Comments, even those meant to be funny, can devastate a person’s self-esteem. Your best move is simply to be kind.

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