What is hyperhidrosis?
Hyperhidrosis is the name given to excessive and uncontrollable sweating.
Sweat is a weak salt solution produced by the eccrine sweat glands. These are distributed over the entire body but are most numerous on the palms and soles (with about 700 glands per square centimetre).
Who gets hyperhidrosis?
Primary hyperhidrosis is reported to affect 1–3% of the US population and nearly always starts during childhood or adolescence. The tendency may be inherited, and it is reported to be particularly prevalent in Japanese people.
Secondary hyperhidrosis is less common and can present at any age.
What causes hyperhidrosis?
Primary hyperhidrosis appears to be due to overactivity of the hypothalamic thermoregulatory centre in the brain, and is transmitted via the sympathetic nervous system to the eccrine sweat gland.
Triggers to attacks of sweating may include:
- Hot weather
- Spicy food
Causes of secondary localised hyperhidrosis include:
- Spinal nerve damage
- Peripheral nerve damage
- Surgical sympathectomy
- Brain tumour
- Chronic anxiety disorder
Causes of secondary generalised hyperhidrosis include:
- Overactive thyroid
- Cardiovascular disorders
- Respiratory failure
- Other endocrine tumours, eg phaeochromocytoma
- Parkinson disease
- Hodgkin disease
- Drugs: alcohol, caffeine, corticosteroids, cholinesterase inhibitors, tricyclic antidepressants, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, nicotinamide and opioids
What are the clinical features of hyperhidrosis?
Hyperhidrosis can be localised or generalised.
- Localised hyperhidrosis affects armpits, palms, soles, face or other sites
- Generalised hyperhidrosis affects most or all of the body
It can be primary or secondary.
- Starts in childhood or adolescence
- May persist lifelong, or improve with age
- There may be a family history
- Tends to involve armpits, palms and or soles symmetrically
- Sweating usually reduces at night, and disappears during sleep
- Less common than primary hyperhidrosis
- More likely to be unilateral and asymmetrical, or generalised
- Can occur at night or during sleep.
- Due to endocrine or neurological conditions
What is the impact of excessive sweating?
Hyperhidrosis is embarrassing and interferes with many daily activities.
- Clothing becomes damp, stained and must be changed several times a day
- Wet skin folds are prone to chafing, irritant dermatitis and infection
- Slippery hands lead to avoidance of hand shaking
- Marks left on paper and fabrics
- Difficulty in writing neatly
- Malfunction of electronic equipment such as keypads and trackpads
- Prone to blistering type of hand dermatitis (pompholyx)
- Affects soles of the feet
- Unpleasant smell
- Ruined footwear
- Prone to blistering type of dermatitis (pompholyx)
- Prone to secondary infection (tinea pedis, pitted keratolysis)
How is hyperhidrosis diagnosed?
Hyperhidrosis is usually diagnosed clinically. Tests relate to potential underlying cause of hyperhidrosis and are rarely necessary in primary hyperhidrosis.
Screening tests in secondary generalised hyperhidrosis depend on other clinical features but should include as a minimum:
- Blood sugar / glycosylated haemoglobin
- Thyroid function
What is the treatment of hyperhidrosis?
- Wear loose-fitting, stain-resistant, sweat-proof garments
- Change clothing and footwear when damp
- Socks containing silver or copper reduce infection and odour
- Use absorbent insoles in shoes and replace them frequently.
- Use a non-soap cleanser
- Apply talcum powder or corn starch powder after bathing
- Try dusting powder containing anticholinergic drug, diphemanil 2%
- Avoid caffeinated food and drink
- Discontinue any drug that may be causing hyperhidrosis
- Apply antiperspirant
- Antiperspirants contain 10–25% aluminium salts to reduce sweating
- Experimentally, topical anticholinergics such as glycopyrrolate have been successful in reducing sweating
- Deodorants are fragrances or antiseptics to disguise unpleasant smells
- Available as cream, aerosol spray, stick, roll-on, wipe or paint
- Applied when skin is dry, after a cool shower just before sleep
- Wash off in the morning
- Use from once or twice weekly to daily if necessary
- If irritating, apply hydrocortisone cream
- For hyperhidrosis of palms, soles and armpits
- Mains and battery-powered units are available
- Affected area is immersed in water, or, with greater effect, glycopyrronium solution
- Gentle electrical current is passed across the skin surface for 10–20 minutes
- Repeated daily for several weeks then less frequently as required
- May cause discomfort, irritation or irritant contact dermatitis
- Requires long-term commitment to treatment
- Not always effective
Oral anticholinergic drugs:
- Propantheline 15–30 mg up to three times daily, oxybutynin 2.5–7.5 mg daily, benztropine, glycopyrrolate (unapproved)
- Can cause dry mouth, and less often, blurred vision, constipation, dizziness, palpitations and other side effects
- Should not be taken by those with glaucoma or urinary retention
- Caution in elderly patients: increased risk of side effects is reported, including dementia
- May interact with other medications
- Block the physical effects of anxiety
- Unsuitable for people with asthma or peripheral vascular disease
Calcium channel blockers, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and anxiolytics may also be useful for some patients.
Botulinum toxin injections
- Botulinum toxin injections are approved for hyperhidrosis affecting the armpits
- Reduce or stop sweating for three to six months
- Used off-license for localised hyperhidrosis in other sites
Surgical removal of axillary sweat glands
Overactive sweat glands in the armpits may be removed by several methods, usually under local anaesthetic.
- Tumescent liposuction (sucking them out)
- Subcutaneous curettage (scraping them out)
- Microwave thermolysis (the MiraDry® system approved by FDA in 2011)
- Subdermal Nd:YAG laser
- Surgery to cut out the sweat gland-bearing skin of the armpits. If a large area needs to be removed, it may be repaired using a skin graft
Division of the spinal sympathetic nerves by chemical or surgical endoscopic thoracic sympathectomy (ETS) may reduce sweating of face (T2 ganglion) or armpit and hand (T3 or T4 ganglion), but is reserved for the most severely affected individuals due to potential risks and complications.
- Hyperhidrosis may recur in up to 15% of cases
- Often accompanied by undesirable skin warmth and dryness
- New-onset hyperhidrosis of other sites in 50–90% of patients, severe in 2%. It is reported to be less frequent after T4 ganglion sympathectomy compared with T2
- Serious complications include Horner syndrome, pneumothorax (in up to 10%), pneumonia and persistent pain (in fewer than 2%)
Lumbar sympathectomy is not recommended for hyperhidrosis affecting the feet as it can interfere with sexual function.
What is the outlook for hyperhidrosis?
Localised primary hyperhidrosis tends to improve with age. The outlook for secondary localised or generalised hyperhidrosis depends on the cause.