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Published on November 23, 2021

business man sweating

What Sweat Tells Us about Our Bodies

Workouts, weather and even wedding-day nerves can lead to an uptick in sweating.

Sweating is the body’s natural way to regulate temperature. “When our sweat evaporates on our skin, it cools our bodies down,” said Avera Medical Group dermatologist Michelle Wanna, MD. “It’s a process we usually see negatively, because we get damp or body odor. But it’s vital.”

What Sweat Is and What it’s Not

Our eccrine glands make our sweat, and about 99% of it is water. Sweating does not “clean up” our bodies though.

“Our liver and kidneys do most of the work to remove toxins from our bodies,” Wanna said. “Not our sweat.”

“Onions, garlic and asparagus all can change the smell of sweat,” Wanna said. “Drinks high in alcohol and caffeine, as well as some medications, impact it, too.” She added high-fat processed foods – usually packed with salt – also can contribute to a sour scent from sweat. Staying hydrated can help keep that smell away.

Most of the smell associated with perspiring is from bacteria feeding on the micronutrients excreted in the process.

Sweating can cause an itchy rash called "prickly heat" or miliaria. It happens when salt or minerals from sweat block sweat from escaping the skin. Sweating doesn’t cause acne directly, but it can make it worse, especially in areas with less “breathing space” such as under a mask or tight-fitting clothes.

Sweat Level Conditions and Treatments

Hypohidrosis is a condition where too little sweat is produced. It might sound convenient, but it can actually be dangerous.

“People who have trouble sweating enough can face risk of heat-related injuries,” Wanna said.

Talk to your health care provider when you’re worried about either extreme. Excessive sweating is called hyperhidrosis, especially on the palms, soles or armpits.

This condition:

  • Is frequently genetic.
  • Typically begins before age 25.
  • Happens regardless of external temperatures.
  • Can impair their daily activities and quality of life due to embarrassment about visible sweat saturating clothing.

“Some patients have such excessive sweating they can ruin electronics or drop objects,” said Wanna. “It can also make some prone to skin infections and wreck clothes.”

Topical antiperspirants that block sweat ducts are a starting point for treatment of this problem. Some are prescription varieties.

Other treatments for excessive sweating are:

  • Water baths with current that help block sweat ducts in the hands and feet.
  • Oral medications to help dry sweat production;
  • Topical wipes for the armpits that work to dry the area.
  • Botox treatment for localized areas of excessive sweating to stifle the sweat glands.

Wanna also said there are surgical approaches used in some extreme cases of excessive sweating.

If you have concerns about your sweat, talk to a provider. In doing so, you can, if needed get a referral for a specialist.

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