Do you wear light-colored shirts without fear of getting sweaty pit stains? Do you shake hands with confidence because your palms are perfectly dry? If you answered yes to both of those questions, then consider yourself lucky. I envy you. That’s because I have hyperhidrosis, a condition that causes me to perspire a lot more than the average person.
Hyperhidrosis is a fancy word for excessive sweating. It usually occurs under the armpits, the palms, the soles of the feet, the face, and a bunch of other body regions where people typically sweat. Doctors call it "focal" hyperhidrosis, because it affects one or more body areas—which differs from another form of hyperhidrosis that involves the entire body and is usually related to some underlying condition.
What causes this sweat overload? While most cases occur in people who are otherwise healthy, Fran Cook-Bolden, MD, a dermatologist with Advanced Dermatology PC in New York City, says that “neurologic, endocrine, infectious, and other systemic diseases can sometimes cause hyperhidrosis.” Heat and emotions may trigger hyperhidrosis in some, but many of us who have it sweat during nearly all their waking hours, regardless of their emotional state or the weather, she adds.
What it’s like living with hyperhidrosis
Plain and simple: I’m always sweating. I sweat right after I shower, during sex, when I work out, when I sleep, when I sit in the car, when it’s 20 degrees, when it's 95 degrees, when I’m nervous, and when I’m calm. I've had hyperhidrosis my whole life, and I remember going to a dermatologist when I was in elementary school, hoping the doctor could explain why I was so much sweatier than other kids.
My feet, hands, and armpits are basically always damp and clammy, which isn’t very sexy when I hold hands, sleep next to, or cuddle with a partner or potential partner. It's not uncommon for me to reach for someone's hand and then have them reply, “Eww, why are your hands so clammy?” When that happens I get even more sweaty—because I’m anxious about how gross it must feel for them to touch my slimy hand.
According to Dr. Cook-Bolden, excessive sweating isn't life-threatening, but it can compromise your well-being. “About one-third of people with focal hyperhidrosis describe their symptoms as significantly affecting their quality of life,” she says. I can explain why: because sweating a lot is really awkward and embarrassing.
My personal experience perfectly aligns with the frustrations that most patients report. I've had to change my cute outfit more times than I can count. Not 10 minutes after dressing up to go out, whatever I'm wearing is already soaked at the pits. It's super uncomfortable, but I wear black cardigans or jackets over my clothes, so no one can see the sweat stains. I also dab my armpits with napkins a million times on the way to wherever I'm going.
Drippy perspiration can foil even simple business transactions. Ever tried signing your name when your hand is so moist that the pen slips away or you splotch the ink on the page? And, of course, it creates challenges in the romance department, as I've already alluded to.
Sweating so much can become problematic when it causes secondary skin issues, like macerations (similar to pruney fingers from sitting in a bath too long), athlete’s foot, warts, or bacterial infections from moist skin. I used to get eczema under my arms and behind my knees from trapped moisture, but now I apply steroidal ointments that prevent flare-ups.
Hyperhidrosis also leaves me more susceptible to vaginal infections. I have to change my workout clothes immediately post-workout, or else I risk getting a yeast infection or bacterial vaginosis. Hanging around in damp leggings poses a risk to most folks with vaginas, but symptoms of either of these infections typically strike for me after an hour, unless I change clothes.
How I’ve tried to stop the sweating
I relied on help from a dermatologist when I was younger, and it seems the treatments for hyperhidrosis are basically the same now as they were then. I’ve tried prescription antiperspirants that permanently stained my armpits a weird yellow color and tons of different over-the-counter deodorants with aluminum, which can supposedly stop sweat. None of them work for me. Lasers and surgery sound extreme, and I’m too nervous to try Botox, but I hear that these are all advanced options that could stop the sweat.
Luckily, I’ve learned to manage hyperhidrosis my own way. I warn people that my hands are sweaty when I go to hold or shake theirs. I never buy tight, colored tops. Wearing black clothes has become a staple of my wardrobe in an effort to eliminate pit stains, and it’s also part of my personal brand now.
I sit on a blanket or a towel in my car in the summertime because my thighs sweat so much against the seats. I’m mindful of the fabric of any chair I sit on in public when I wear shorts, so my legs don’t saturate or stick to the seat. I use an aluminum-charcoal deodorant, which seems to work okay, but I still sweat through it.
Managing my hyperhidrosis is mostly a matter of attitude. After struggling with it my whole life, I mainly just accept my excessive sweating as a part of my identity now, which helps to reduce my anxiety about it. Living with this condition was more frustrating back when I was in middle school and didn’t know how to deal. Now, it is what it is. I’m perpetually sweaty. Love me or leave me.
Once upon a time, I body-shamed myself for my excessive perspiration. Now, I accept my sweaty pits and clammy palms as just another normal part of me—and perhaps even my very own form of radical self-love and body positivity. After all, if I can’t love me at my sweatiness, how can I expect someone else to? Sweating a lot might dampen my body, but it won’t put a damper on my days anymore if I can help it (and I can).
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