What is Hyperhidrosis?
Hyperhidrosis is a condition in which a person sweats excessively. The sweating may affect the whole body, or it may only affect certain areas. Commonly affected areas include the:
- palms of hands
- soles of feet
- face and chest
The sweating doesn’t usually pose a serious threat to health, but it can be embarrassing and distressing. It can also have a negative impact on quality of life and may lead to feelings of depression and anxiety.
Hyperhidrosis is considered to come in two forms:
Primary hyperhidrosis has no known cause. There are no underlying medical problems and it is not a side effect of medications. It affects particular parts of the body, most commonly the hands, feet, underarms or the face/head. It sometimes can affect the chest or groin areas too. Many patients have more than one part of the body affected. It usually begins in childhood or adolescence and sometimes runs in families. Patients with primary hyperhidrosis rarely sweat when they are asleep.
Secondary generalized hyperhidrosis is caused by an underlying medical condition or is a side effect of medications. Sweating occurs over a larger part of the body and often when patients are sleeping.
How It Affects Me
I can’t remember when I was officially diagnosed with hyperhidrosis. My mum tells me I was sweaty from birth: grey from the umbilical cord choking me, resembling a troll (according to my brother) and sweating from my teeny tiny hands and feet even then. It’s something I’ve always known and never been without.
My condition affects my whole body, although my hands and feet are worse by a long shot. When I looked at the definitions and read “sweat at least once per week,” I snickered. I wish it were once per week. I don’t easily fit into a category. Although I’m technically primary as it’s not medication induced, it affects me constantly including in my sleep. Even as I type this I can feel the sweat accumulating on the tips of my fingers. Sounds super gross, right? It is.
But this is my life, and this is what I struggle with every day with no cure. I am currently in bed, late morning at the end of October in England with the bedroom window next to me wide open. I’m under a blanket with Storm Brian blowing a gale outside and this is the result.
Summer or winter, hot or cold, I sweat. Temperature doesn’t come into it much. My limbs can feel freezing and still my hands will be sweating so much they slip on the steering wheel, forcing me to turn the heater down.
I have found the easiest way of describing it to people is to say my internal thermostat is broken. My body always thinks it’s hot so always sweats. Summer is unbearable to me. If I am this sweaty in October, imagine me at its hottest. And humidity is the worst: there’s nowhere for my sweat to evaporate to so it just sits there, dripping. And I do quite literally mean dripping.
Along with temperature, hyperhidrosis can be triggered by stress and anxiety. As a person who struggles with depression and anxiety, you can see how this may be an issue! If you consider my life to be this: every day I sweat (that’s my normal), now make it summer (I’m hating life and want to rip my skin off by now) and to top it off, I’m anxious?! I’m a walking puddle of sweat stains, dripping palms, and feet that are in swamps.
You may think, “What are you moaning about? It’s just sweat.” You’re right. To an extent. It causes me no physical pain, just discomfort. Except for when it leads to heat rash on the palms of my hands and all over the bottoms of my feet. But it sure does pile on the emotional pain.
When I touch paper it disintegrates. Back in school, the teachers would ask if my table was wet. I would shake my head, red cheeks blooming. Oh god! Now the embarrassment is kickstarting the hyperhidrosis into overdrive and I’m sweating more! Which in turn makes me more anxious. Ahh, the cycle of never-ending sweat that is my life. How do you turn to your teacher and say in front of the class, “No, sir. I’m just sweaty enough to soak through the paper when I write on it.”
I dread every job interview for one reason: The Handshake. If I turn down a handshake I look weird and won’t get hired, but if I don’t I’ll forever be known as, “Oh, the one with the gross, wet shake?”
I can count on one hand a number of times I have held my partner’s hand or touched his face. “Quick!” I cry, “My hands are dry!!!” As I rush to rub my once-in-a-blue-moon dry hands all over him. And it’s not that he cares (although I’m sure he does, he just wants to be supportive), it’s simply just as an unpleasant experience for me as it is for others. And this is my reality: shock and awe when I am dry.
I wake up each and every morning in a puddle. The bed under me is literally wet. A human-shaped print of moisture left behind me. No matter how many deodorants I apply, nothing works. “72 hours!? Pffft. More like five!” I always apply two: one roll-on, one spray. Then reapply spray in the day. I’ll still smell gross by the end. It won’t stop me sweating at all. “Antiperspirant. Pffft.”
There’s no cure for hyperhidrosis. It feels sometimes like no one is looking into it because it’s not considered a major thing. But I’d like it if one guy was looking into it and discovered something.
The treatments that exist are: aluminium infused roll-on you apply to hands and feet, botox injections and electrocution!
Aluminium roll-on is applied to the affected areas at night and washed off in the morning. I have tried this a number of times as it’s all my GPs have offered. It made my skin red, raw and cracked. Super painful. I don’t think the aluminium agrees with me. (Worth a try, just in case.)
Botox injections are done privately, costing around £450 just for armpits and needs repeating every couple months. (Unaffordable for many.)
Electrocution – actually called iontophoresis – is where your hands and feet are submerged in water and an electrical current is passed through. This can result in mild discomfort and skin irritation. This has to be done for 20-30 mins, four times a week until it’s lessened over time. Once symptoms appear improved, they are done at one- to four-week intervals, depending on how severe the symptoms. This means taking a trip to the nearest hospital dermatology unit that has these machines four times a week (difficult when working/studying/parenting full-time!) or pay £250-500 for a home machine. (Impractical and unaffordable.)
There is a surgery option (if you can call it that) which cuts the nerves to the sweat glands in affected areas; however, this is generally only offered in severe cases as it carries serious risks, causes compensatory sweating (double the sweating in another place not treated by surgery, i.e. back or forehead) and it simply doesn’t always work. (Risks are too high for my liking.)
For me, this is something I have learned to live with. It will always be a battle and something I wish I didn’t have, but I will cope. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve cried over this annoying condition. Yes, because of its impracticalities, but mostly over the lack of human connection. Every time I meet someone new I have to explain it and potentially face ridicule. Every time I start a new relationship I have to do it all over again. I face the same jokes. The same look of revulsion they quickly cover up when they forget and touch my hands or feet. I couldn’t hold hands in the playground with my friends as a child. I couldn’t with my first boyfriend. I used to stroke his arm with the back of my fingers as a way to gain touch without my sweat ruining it all.
I’ve learned ways around it. I’ve learned to manage, but it’s still an uncomfortable existence. This is my life, and I’ll keep on living it. The life of a Sweaty Betty.