Sweat is the body's natural way to control its temperature. A person usually sweats due to physical exertion, raised body temperature, or exposure to heat. The sweat acts as a coolant, reducing the temperature inside the body.
In other cases, a person may sweat in their armpits or on the palms of their hands because of emotional or mental stress.
Diaphoresis usually resolves once the underlying cause is known. In this article, we look at the possible causes and treatment option.
What is diaphoresis?
Diaphoresis is not due to exercise or external heat.
Image credit: Lance Cpl. Reece E. Lodder, 2010
When a person experiences excessive sweating, it is called diaphoresis. In diaphoresis, the sweating cannot be explained by external heat or exercise. Instead, it is often the result of an underlying medical condition or someone's medication.
It is essential for someone to see a doctor if they experience frequent diaphoresis. Often, the underlying condition can be treated and future diaphoresis prevented.
In some cases, the excessive sweating is caused by a condition that may have serious complications.
A range of conditions can cause diaphoresis, including the following:
Menopause is a common cause of excessive sweating in women. This type of sweating often occurs at night.
Estrogen and other hormones are in a state of flux during and just before menopause. The hormones can send messages to the brain that the body is overheating even when it is not, which triggers a sweat response.
When a person has hyperthyroidism, their thyroid gland produces too much thyroxine. Thyroxine helps regulate the body's metabolism. Too much thyroxine can increase the speed of someone's metabolism, causing excessive sweating.
A person may also experience:
A person should seek medical attention if they suspect they have hyperthyroidism, as there are treatments available.
For someone who has diabetes, profuse sweating can signal hypoglycemia or low blood sugar. In these situations, a person needs to bring their blood sugar levels back up. Hypoglycemia can cause severe complications and be life-threatening if not treated urgently.
Some additional signs of hypoglycemia include:
- loss of vision
- slurring words
Weight gain and fluctuations in hormones can cause sweating during pregnancy.
Many women sweat more during pregnancy than at other times in their lives. Sweating during pregnancy can occur because of:
- weight gain
- hormone fluctuations
- increased metabolism
Most pregnancy-related sweating is normal, but a woman should see a doctor if she experiences excess sweating combined with fever, chills, or vomiting. These symptoms could be signs of other conditions or an infection.
Carrying extra weight can make a person more prone to sweating. This can be due to increased exertion from carrying more weight or holding on to heat.
When a person stops using alcohol or drugs for recreational purposes, they may go through withdrawal. Profuse sweating is a common symptom of withdrawal, but there are many others, some of which may be life-threatening.
It is often a good idea for a person quitting drugs or alcohol to seek medical attention, as a doctor can help monitor withdrawal symptoms.
Symptoms of withdrawal can include:
- changing blood pressure levels
- vomiting or nausea
- racing pulse
Diaphoresis is a potential side effect of many medications. Some over-the-counter and prescription drugs that may cause excessive sweating include:
- certain antibiotics
- some antiviral medications
- pain relief, such as oxycodone
- hormonal medications, such as insulin
- drugs used in association with chemotherapy
If a person suspects they are sweating due to a medication they are taking, they should speak to their doctor. It is possible they may recommend a change in medication.
8. Heart attack
A heart attack is a medical emergency. In addition to severe sweating, a person may experience:
- chest pain
- vomiting or nausea
- pale face
- shortness of breath
- pain in the back, neck, jaw, or one or both arms
Anaphylaxis is an extreme allergic reaction that can be life-threatening. In addition to sweating, a person may experience:
- sudden decrease in blood pressure
- itchy skin
- narrowing airways and difficulty breathing
- loss of consciousness
A person should seek immediate medical help if experiencing anaphylaxis. Anyone who witnesses someone experiencing the symptoms of anaphylaxis should call emergency services straight away and use the person's epinephrine injector (EpiPen) if available.
10. Certain cancers
Rarely, some cancers can cause a person to sweat profusely. These cancers include:
Treatment for diaphoresis varies depending on the cause. In many cases, treating the underlying condition will clear up any excessive sweating.
When medication is the cause, a doctor may prescribe different medications. If this is not possible, they may be able to recommend ways to manage the sweating.
For example, for underarm sweat, a person can try stronger underarm antiperspirants. Some people may also experience short-term relief with the use of onabotulinumtoxina injections, commonly known as Botox.
Iontophoresis uses a small electrical shock to help reduce and prevent sweating from the feet and hands. Similar to injections, this provides only temporary relief and may require several sessions.
Lastly, a doctor may prescribe an oral anticholinergic medication. Oxybutynin or glycopyrrolate are two potential medications that help reduce sweating.
Maintaining a healthy weight and exercising regularly may help reduce diaphoresis.
Prevention is not always possible, but there are some steps a person can take to reduce diaphoresis. These steps include:
- managing diabetes
- maintaining a healthy weight
- eating a balanced diet and avoiding spicy or hot foods
- exercising regularly
- wearing loose clothing during warm weather
- drinking more water
- avoiding hot weather
- applying a clinical-strength antiperspirant
When to see a doctor
Anyone experiencing excessive sweating with no apparent cause should speak to their doctor, especially if it is affecting their everyday life or occurs with additional symptoms.
A person should also talk to their doctor if sweating causes a rash that lasts longer than a few days. This may indicate a skin infection.
If sweating occurs only on one side of the body, a person may be experiencing a neurologic condition that requires immediate medical attention.
Other reasons to visit a doctor, as soon as possible, include excessive sweating accompanied by:
- chest pain
- difficulty breathing
- pale or cold and clammy skin
- heart palpitations
Diaphoresis is not always a cause for concern and treating the underlying cause will often clear up the condition.
A person should be aware of other symptoms that may signal more serious underlying causes. If in doubt, they should seek medical attention for a proper diagnosis and treatment.