I was just a kid when it started – uncontrollable sweat pouring off my hands and feet no matter the temperature or how relaxed I was feeling. When I did math homework, the paper would get damp and wrinkle under my fist. I snuck away during the “sharing the peace” part of the church where everyone shook hands because I was embarrassed to see someone wipe their hand after touching mine. I couldn’t wear rubber shoes (devastating for a mid-90’s kid!) or plastic flip-flops, and I left little wet footprints everywhere I went.
I wasn’t officially diagnosed with hyperhidrosis, defined as abnormal, excessive sweating, until high school. It was the early 2000s and treatment options included a roll-on topic and an iontophoresis hand and foot bath, both of which I tried to no avail. (Iontophoresis is a device that sends a weak electric current through water, and the prescription roll-on was sticky and uncomfortable to use when I first felt the first drops of sweat.) Neuromodulators like Botox have since proven effective in preventing sweat glands from penetrating me produced excessive sweat, but at the time the treatment was relatively new—and I lived on a farm in North Dakota. It wasn’t realistic to travel to Minneapolis – the closest major city – to get a few dozen botox injections in my hands and feet every three or four months. In 2007 I went to the Mayo Clinic, took some tests to make sure I was qualified and finally underwent an endoscopic thoracic sympathectomy for my hyperhidrosis. During surgery, sweat glands are cut, clipped, or pinched to reduce or stop sweating altogether; The process takes about 40 minutes and the recovery only took a few days. It changed my life and over a decade later my hands are bone dry although my feet are still a little sweaty.
My younger self wasn’t alone in her shame and anxiety over her sweaty hands and feet. A 2016 study found that about 4.8% of the United States population, or about 15.3 million people, struggles with excessive sweating on some part of their body. Forearms, hands, and feet are the most common sites, although people can also experience hyperhidrosis on the face, torso, and groin. “Hyperhidrosis is sweat when the body doesn’t need cooling,” explains Mona Gohara, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Hamden, Connecticut. “It’s caused when stimulation of the nervous system causes overstimulation of the sweat glands.”
As I can attest, the condition can be debilitating. “Patients will not go out in public, they will not attend class or raise their hands, they will not buy new clothes because of the yellow stain under their armpits, they will not wear light-colored or sleeveless clothing, they will not be intimate.” says Dr. Gohara. “It can affect every aspect of a person’s life.”