Repeat after us: Sweating is normal. Everybody sweats. Of course, some of us sweat a little more than others, and often at inopportune times. Like when you’ve just been called into a meeting with your boss, and suddenly you’ve got sweaty hands so slick you can’t turn the doorknob. Or you go to shake a new colleague’s hand, only to realize your palm is dripping.
Of course, sweat can be a good thing. The body uses sweat to cool itself and keep our body temperature in a healthy range—somewhere between 97 and 99 degrees, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. It’s also possible that sweating could help clear the body of toxins (though some experts disagree with this claim),1 keep bacteria in balance,2 and keep the skin hydrated,3 but more research is needed on all accounts. In other words, we need sweat to keep us healthy, but excessive sweating—especially the kind that feels out of control or causes skin issues—might actually be a medical condition.
The name hyperhidrosis may be new to you, but if you have it, you know something’s up. People who suffer from hyperhidrosis sweat a lot. “In some people, it may be as high as four to five times the normal level of sweat,” Marlyanne Pol-Rodriguez, MD, a dermatologist and hyperhidrosis expert at Stanford Health Care, tells SELF, adding that millions of people have this condition. In fact, it’s estimated that 3% of the U.S. population sweats excessively, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD).
Ahead we’ll explore what actually constitutes a sweaty hand problem, and tips on how to keep your palms and feet feeling fresh and dry.
How can you tell if your sweaty hands and feet are “normal” or overkill?
The hands and feet have more sweat gland density than any other part of the body. So, if you find that these areas sweat more (but not excessively) than other parts of your body, it could be due to simple biology. Sweat can be triggered by plenty of things, like stress, anxiety, heat, or exercise. Imagine you have to give a presentation at work, and you notice your hands are sweating—maybe the paper you’re holding gets damp. That’s within the realm of normal.
There’s not a super firm line about when sweaty hands go from an annoyance to a condition. Two of the biggest factors are how much you sweat, and how much it affects your life. “The simplest definition of hyperhidrosis is excessive sweating that is beyond what would be expected from whatever the trigger of the sweating is,” Dr. Pol-Rodriguez explains. Basically, for someone with hyperhidrosis, the same triggers—stress, heat, exercise—cause a whole lot more sweat.
Imagine not being able to hold on to a steering wheel while driving, or slipping across a tile floor when barefoot. The sweating with hyperhidrosis is severe enough that it “impairs your normal activities,” S. Max Vale, MD, a dermatologist at UW Medicine, tells SELF. That could mean that sweat is visible even when you’re not exerting yourself—something a doctor will be checking for. The excess moisture can also cause the skin to feel extra soft or peeled. Frequent issues with skin infections like athlete’s foot can even become a problem.
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What causes sweaty hands and feet?
For some people, the cause of excess sweatiness is a health condition—like menopause or diabetes—or it could even be the side effect of a medication. That’s called secondary hyperhidrosis. (Worth noting: Some people believe that high blood pressure can cause sweating, but that’s a myth, according to the American Heart Association. High blood pressure rarely has symptoms.)
But many people have primary hyperhidrosis, which has no known cause. One thing that we do know is that the sweat glands themselves are not the problem. They’re not bigger or more plentiful; rather, something is causing them to be hyperactive, Joyce Fox, MD, a clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Southern California and practitioner at Cedars-Sinai, tells SELF.