Nervous sweat

How a sweating disorder gave me anxiety and made my life impossible

15th July 2019

Imagine going through your life being afraid to touch other people. That’s how I live.

I have hyperhidrosis, which is excessive sweating. I struggle to control how much I sweat and it has been a raging battle for me for as long as I can remember. 

It affects everything in my life: the clothes I wear, the food I eat and what I do. 

Hyperhidrosis, to use medical jargon, is more common than you think. It’s basically excessive sweating and it mainly affects the underarms, palms and feet of those unfortunate enough to have it.  

It’s not harmful or anything — though you can get bad sweat rashes and athletes’ foot if you don’t keep it in check — though for the most part, it’s is an annoyance and worse, an embarrassment. Around 5% of all humans suffer from it.

What is the cause? 

Sometimes, there are temporary causes such as pregnancy or menopause.  This is called secondary hyperhidrosis, in which the sweating is caused by varying factors; possibly an infection, thyroid problem or a reaction to the medication.  

Though still unpleasant, this is at least more manageable than primary hyperhidrosis, which is what I have. The causes are largely unknown and unpredictable. I believe in mine comes through my genes, so there is not much I can do about it.

How has it affected me? 

I have plenty of embarrassing moments when someone wants to shake my hand but I know that they will come to regret it. The worst part for me is when you see their reaction or, even worse, them wiping their hand afterwards. A particularly painful memory of mine is when I won an award in school and was called up to the stage in assembly and had to shake the principal’s hand. He wiped his hand dry on his trousers in front of the whole school. 

At school, it wasn’t just embarrassing, it resulted in a fair share of bullying. In Year 8 engineering we made moisture sensors to check if your plants had been watered. Kids in my class used to come up to me and put the DIY sensors on my hands, the light would shine and they would all laugh. This went on for months. I became some sort of freak show.

I have to get through life with minimal contact with people, no handshakes, no high-fives, no hugs, no holding hands. Of course, that wouldn’t be the case to if people had a bit more compassion and understood that I have no control. Yes, over the years I have become outwardly numb to people’s reactions but deep down it still hurts. The fact that the older I get and the more I’m aware people holding hands or dancing together, being intimate with one another, I just think, I wish I could do that. 

my hyperhidrosis is the reason for my anxiety and my loneliness. It’s a vicious circle that’s extremely hard to break out of.

My wardrobe is full of t-shirts that are either black or white, colours that hide the sweat patches the most, black trousers and a lot of socks. I have to chose what I wear carefully as many shirts are made with manmade fibres which aggravate the condition and make my sweat glands run overtime. 

I have to be careful about what I eat. Any spicy food or anything too salty will set the sweating off. I find that sometimes even just having a bag of crisps at lunchtime can result in me sweating constantly for the rest of the day. 

Touching something like a computer mouse or a steering wheel can cause me to sweat a lot. I have to wear gloves to drive which causes a lot of confusion when people are in the passenger seat. Wearing them, to cover my sweat is alternative avoiding sweating by putting the air con on full blast. My driving instructor called me “aqua boy” and used to put several coats and gloves on before the lesson started because I would have the air con on in the middle of winter. As you can tell I was his favourite student. 

In short, my hyperhidrosis is the reason for my anxiety and my loneliness. It’s a vicious circle that’s extremely hard to break out of. Because of my sweating, I struggle to have any hobby (other than swimming) and find it is impossible to go on dates. The end result is I am lonely.

What can be done about it? 

By the time I left sixth form, I was sick of it and needed to do something about it. My first port of call was the doctors. They prescribed a very strong antiperspirant to apply to my hands which turned out to be was an irritant. I spent the whole day itching and so, went back to the doctor. They then gave me some Doublebase gel, a fancy moisturiser. This was to be applied to my hands after perspiring but ended up making my hands greasy, completely failing to deal with the problem that had taken me to the doctors in the first place.

I was then told about two other methods that were guaranteed to work, the first being botox. Having botox to close the sweat glands is very effective and it would reduce sweating, however, I was not confident in having it done. At the moment botox is used only on armpits and isn’t a permanent solution for sweaty palms. Plus it can cost a fair amount and there is always a risk of side effects.

The second was iontophoresis. This seemed like a pretty experimental method and not much is known about it. I wasn’t too keen when I heard the words “experimental”, so I looked for alternative, “natural” methods. One crazy method was to eat stuffing (as in chicken and stuffing sandwiches). I had no problem with this except for the fact it didn’t work. So iontophoresis it was.

Iontophoresis is a therapy to reduce the sweating completely. It is achieved by putting one’s hands or feet (wherever you are sweating) on to a metal plate submerged in a small layer of water. You then attach the metal plates to an electric circuit and place your hands on them for 10 minutes. You feel a tingling on your hands at first but you get used to it and you can raise the voltage gradually from 12 volts to 27 volts. You may have a rash for a half-hour afterwards but I would take that over a sweat rash any day.

There is a small risk of mild electrocution if you don’t follow the procedure correctly but I’m very careful and it’s a risk I’m willing the take. A small amount of pain is nothing compared to anxiety and difficulty of living with hyperhidrosis.

The therapy seems to work but it is not known the effects of long-term exposure to the method. I continue to do the therapy twice a week and I feel confident to give a handshake or touch a steering wheel. I may be a long way from living a “dry life” but hopefully my anxieties and my loneliness will soon have less control over my life.

15th July 2019