Defining Hyperhidrosis

In some people, the body’s mechanism for cooling itself is overactive — so overactive that they may sweat four or five times more than is necessary, or normal. When sweating is this extreme it can be embarrassing, uncomfortable, anxiety-inducing, and disabling. It can disrupt all aspects of a person’s life, from career choices and recreational activities to relationships, emotional well-being, and self-image. This kind of excessive sweating is a serious medical condition. It’s called hyperhidrosis and it afflicts millions of people around the world (approximately 3% of the population). But, due to lack of awareness, more than half of these people are never diagnosed or treated for their symptoms.
It doesn’t have to be this way.

The International Hyperhidrosis Society is dedicated to improving understanding of this debilitating condition and helping sufferers get relief. If you or someone you care about suffers from hyperhidrosis, you should know that treatments for excessive sweating are available. We’ve got information to help you understand hyperhidrosis and we can help you find the support and treatment you need to live the life you deserve. But first, you need to understand the two types of hyperhidrosis so you can make your game plan.

Two Types of Hyperhidrosis

There are two types of hyperhidrosis: primary focal and secondary generalized. Understanding the difference is one of the first steps in understanding hyperhidrosis.

Primary focal hyperhidrosis refers to excessive sweating that is not caused by another medical condition, nor is it a side effect of medications. The excessive sweating is the medical condition. This type of sweating occurs on very specific areas of the body (described as focal areas) and is usually relatively “symmetric” meaning that both the left and right sides of the body are affected similarly. The most common focal areas are the hands, feet, underarms, and head or face.

Primary focal hyperhidrosis often begins in childhood or adolescence, especially hyperhidrosis of the hands and feet. Interestingly, although people with primary focal hyperhidrosis have episodes of excessive sweating at least once a week, they usually do not experience excessive sweating while sleeping. It’s also been shown that primary focal hyperhidrosis may be inherited and many members of the same family may suffer from this condition (but sadly many never talk about it with each other because of embarrassment). If hyperhidrosis seems to “run” in your family, you may be able to help researchers at the Albert Einstein Medical School better understand who gets hyperhidrosis and why. This is critical research in helping us one day find a cure to hyperhidrosis. Visit our Clinical and Market Research page to find out more and whether you’re eligible to participate in this important project.

Whether you have primary or secondary hyperhidrosis can be determined by asking yourself a few questions as outlined by (and published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 2004, Vol. 51, P. 274-86) St. Louis dermatologist Dr. Dee Anna Glaser. Dr. Glaser is the International Hyperhidrosis Society President and founding board member and an internationally recognized expert in hyperhidrosis. First, says Glaser, ask yourself if you have experienced focal visible excess sweat for at least six months without apparent cause. If the answer is “yes,” then the next step is determining whether you meet at least two of the following criteria:

Your sweat is bilateral and relatively symmetrical, meaning you sweat the same amount on both sides of your body.
Your excess sweat impairs your daily activities.
You experience at least one episode a week.
The onset of your excess sweat is earlier than age 25.
You have a positive family history. (Meaning that other members of your family suffer from similar sweating problems.)
You stop sweating when you’re sleeping.
If you meet at least two of the above criteria, chances are you have primary hyperhidrosis, and you should make an appointment with a dermatologist familiar with treatment options for people with hyperhidrosis. (Check our Physician Finder database for a doctor near you.) Some dermatologists believe upwards of 90 percent of people who present with excessive sweating will be diagnosed with primary hyperhidrosis.

The other main type of hyperhidrosis is referred to as secondary generalized hyperhidrosis. This type of excessive sweating is caused by another medical condition or is a side effect of a medication. That’s why it’s called secondary – it’s secondary to something else. Unlike with primary focal hyperhidrosis, people with secondary hyperhidrosis experience sweating on larger or other areas of the body (described as generalized areas). Another key difference between the two types of hyperhidrosis is that people with secondary generalized hyperhidrosis may often experience their sweating symptoms while sleeping. With secondary hyperhidrosis, excessive sweating usually starts in adulthood, whereas primary hyperhidrosis starts in childhood or adolescence. Finding a potential treatment for secondary excessive sweating often involves first determining what (if any) underlying medical condition or medication may be the root of the problem. In the case of secondary hyperhidrosis, you don’t want to eliminate an important symptom of an underlying condition.

As with primary focal hyperhidrosis, it is important to talk to a knowledgeable physician about all-over, secondary sweating. A physician, such as an internal medicine doctor, can look at your medical history, provide an examination, run any necessary tests, consider any medications you may be taking (remember to tell your doctor about all medications you’re using – including over-the-counter and herbal/natural products) and provide other professional insights.

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