Sweating: How It Works and Related Conditions

Medically Reviewed By Alana Biggers, M.D., MPH

Sweating is a body process to help reduce your temperature. When your body heats up, glands in your skin produce sweat to help prevent your body from overheating. The sweat evaporates on your skin, producing a cooling effect. There are times when people sweat a lot, such as when exercising or in hot weather. However, some health conditions and other problems cause you to sweat too much or too little. Sometimes, this can lead to complications, such as skin infections, dehydration, or heatstroke.

This article explains typical sweating and how to manage it. It also discusses unusual sweating, including causes, potential complications, and when to contact a doctor about your sweating.

Sweating explained

A sweaty person boxing
Irina Efremova/Stocksy United

Sweating occurs when glands in your skin produce sweat to help cool down your body. Additionally, the evaporating liquid helps cool down your body and prevents overheating.

Most people sweat mainly in their armpits, feet, and palms. Sweat is associated with unpleasant odors. However, any odor or smell that comes from sweat results from the sweat mixing with bacteria on your skin. Sweat itself should not smell unpleasant.

Your body has 2–4 million sweat glands Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source , with two main types:

Apocrine glands

The apocrine glands are primarily in the:

  • armpits
  • breasts
  • face
  • scalp
  • perineum

They are present from birth but do not produce sweat until puberty.

The apocrine glands produce sweat that contains lipids, proteins, sugars, and ammonia.

Eccrine glands

These glands are located in the palms, soles, and hairy skin and begin producing sweat early in life. However, the sweat they produce contains mostly water.

Causes of sweating

Everyone is different when it comes to sweating. Some people sweat more than others. Typically, your body sweats when you:

  • are in a hot environment
  • exercise
  • feel anxious
  • have a fever
  • experience menopause

Atypical sweating

Not all types of sweating are normal. Sometimes people sweat too much or too little.

Excessive sweating

Excessive sweating, or hyperhidrosis, can be necessary during intense heat or exercise. However, excessive sweating also occurs when your body does not need to cool down.

Excessive sweating can affect the whole body. However, you may sweat from just one or two areas of the body, such as your:

  • palms
  • feet
  • armpits
  • head

Excessive sweating can occur for no apparent reason or due to:

Excessive sweating on its own is usually not dangerous. However, without treating the underlying cause, hyperhidrosis can lead to:

Inadequate sweating

Inadequate sweating, hypohidrosis, or anhidrosis are terms for the same rare condition in which the body makes little or no sweat. It occurs due to:

  • skin irregularities
  • skin injuries, such as from:
  • atrophy of sweat glands from connective tissue disease
  • some genetic conditions
  • certain medications

When to see a doctor

It is important to contact a doctor or dermatologist if you have excessive sweating that:

  • lasts for at least 6 months
  • happens at least once per week
  • interferes with your daily activities
  • happens only at night

Night sweats occur when you sweat so excessively that your bedding and clothes are soaked, even though the room or environment is cool.

A family history of excessive sweating may also increase your risk of the condition.

Excessive night sweating can indicate certain medical conditions, such as thyroid conditions or certain cancers. As such, it is important to mention it to your doctor, especially if you develop night sweating suddenly and have other symptoms, such as unexplained weight loss or fevers.

Learn more about night sweats.

You should also let your doctor know if you generally do not sweat or sweat very little.

Heat and sweat

If sweating is occurring as a result of being in a high-temperature environment, you should also seek medical attention for any signs of heat exhaustion, including:

Get emergency help if you have signs of heatstroke:

  • a very high temperature
  • hot, dry skin that might look red or discolored, which can be harder to see on darker skin tones
  • a fast heartbeat
  • fast breathing or shortness of breath
  • confusion and lack of coordination
  • a seizure or fit
  • loss of consciousness

Diagnosing atypical sweating

To diagnose atypical sweating, your doctor or dermatologist will give you a physical exam and ask you questions about your sweating.

There is no one test to determine the cause of any problems with sweating you may be having. However, doctors may order multiple tests to find the underlying medical reason behind the sweating issues. For instance, bloodwork could help diagnose a medical condition, or imaging may help identify if a tumor is present.

Managing sweating

There are many things you can do to help manage sweating and prevent it from interfering with your daily activities.

To control sweating:

  • Use a strong antiperspirant instead of typical deodorant (your doctor can prescribe a clinical-strength antiperspirant, if needed). Apply to your underarms, hands, feet, or hairline.
  • Try armpit or sweat shields to protect your clothing.
  • Avoid synthetic fabrics, such as nylon.
  • Wear sandals (when you can) and shoes made of natural materials like leather.
  • Try to slip off your shoes often.
  • Avoid wearing the same shoes 2 days in a row.
  • Use foot powder for sweaty feet.
  • Wear socks that absorb moisture. If possible, change your socks twice per day.
  • Avoid alcohol and spicy foods, which can make sweating worse.

To stay cool and dry:

  • Lower the room temperature to cool your body down.
  • Change your bed linens often to keep them cool and dry.
  • Bathe once per day to cool your skin. Use soap substitutes that are gentler on your skin.
  • Wear loose-fitting and breathable clothes to minimize signs of sweating.
  • Stay hydrated. Drink enough water to replace the fluid you lose through sweat.

In severely excessive sweating, your doctor may recommend other medical treatments to help control your sweating. For instance, Botox can treat excessive armpit sweating. Additionally, surgery is available to reduce your number of sweat glands.

FAQ

Here are some commonly asked questions about sweating. Dr. Alana Biggers has reviewed the answers.

Does diabetes cause sweating?

Yes, many medical conditions can cause excessive sweating, including diabetes.

What does sudden sweating mean?

Sudden sweating could mean that you are overheated or anxious. Sudden sweating could also suggest another medical condition, such as menopause or a thyroid disorder.

Sudden sweating and skin that feels cool to the touch, along with other symptoms, could indicate a heart attack. Therefore, be sure to seek emergency medical attention.

Summary

Sweating is how your body cools itself. Sweat glands in the skin produce sweat that helps cool your body and prevent it from overheating.

Typical sweating occurs with exercise, fever, anxiety, or hot environments. Unusual sweating is when you sweat too much or too little. Certain health conditions, medications, and injuries can also cause unusual sweating.

You can do many things to help manage sweating, including wearing breathable clothing, staying out of the sun whenever possible, and staying hydrated. It is also important to recognize signs of heat exhaustion and heatstroke.

Contact your doctor or dermatologist if you have questions or concerns about sweating.

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  1. Anhidrosis. (n.d.). https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/anhidrosis
  2. Baker, L. B. (2019). Physiology of sweat gland function: the roles of sweating and sweat composition in human health. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6773238/
  3. Das, S. (2022). Introduction to sweating disorders. https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/dermatologic-disorders/sweating-disorders/introduction-to-sweating-disorders
  4. Excessive sweating (hyperhidrosis). (2021). https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/excessive-sweating-hyperhidrosis/
  5. Heat exhaustion and heat stroke. (2022). https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/heat-exhaustion-heatstroke/
  6. Hyperhidrosis: Diagnosis and treatment. (n.d.). https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/a-z/hyperhidrosis-treatment
  7. Night sweats. (n.d.). https://osteopathic.org/what-is-osteopathic-medicine/night-sweats/

Medical Reviewer: Alana Biggers, M.D., MPH
Last Review Date: 2022 Sep 13
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