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What is Sweat & Why Do We Sweat?

November 19, 2019 5 min read

what is sweat

Everybody sweats, but not all of us sweat the same. Although it is a natural function to control our body’s temperature, the amount of sweat produced, the odor associated with sweat and even the causes of our sweat can vary greatly from person to person. Whether you find yourself sweating profusely on hot days or tend to stress sweat when you are under pressure, you might find yourself asking, "Why do we sweat?"

Here we answer the common questions about sweat and offer some interesting facts that might make you feel a little less embarrassed by this normal bodily function.

What is sweat?

Sweat is the watery substance produced when your body begins to overheat. It is your body’s natural process to control its temperature. As sweat evaporates, your body cools down which keeps your body temperature normal.

There are two types of glands that produce sweat:

  1. Eccrine glands: These glands are responsible for producing most of your sweat. The sweat produced by eccrine glands is mostly water. It also contains salt, protein, urea, and ammonia. Your eccrine glands are found in high concentration on your palms, the soles of your feet, your forehead and armpits, but are also located throughout your body.
  2. Apocrine glands: Your apocrine glands are larger than eccrine glands. They are found in the armpits, groin, and breast area. When you think of sweat in relation to body odor, it’s your apocrine glands that are indirectly responsible for the unpleasant smell. We all have bacteria living on our skin and when apocrine glands produce sweat, it breaks down sweat into fatty acids. When this mixes with apocrine secretions, it creates body odor.

Why do people sweat?

People sweat for different reasons. For example, you might feel extremely uncomfortable and sweaty in a room you find hot, while others in the room are completely composed and cool. You might tend to sweat when you are nervous, while others might sweat when they are angry, or only when hot or active. This can make asking the question "Why do we sweat?" a little harder to answer. However, there are some common reasons people sweat including:

  • Heat: When the environment is hot, your body temperature elevates and causes sweating.
  • Emotions and stress: Emotions, such as anger, fear, embarrassment, anxiety and emotional stress can cause you to break out into a nervous sweat.
  • Foods: Some people might sweat when eating certain foods especially spicy foods. Drinks containing caffeine as well as alcohol can also cause sweating.
  • Medications: Medications can cause sweating including those taken for cancer, fever, infections, hypoglycemia, pain or thyroid issues.

There are also many medical conditions that can cause overactive sweating, or hyperhidrosis. If you feel you are sweating an abnormal amount, you should speak to your doctor.

why do we sweat

What are sweating symptoms?

Since we all sweat, it can be hard to determine if your sweating symptoms are “abnormal.” However, if you suffer from any of the following physical symptoms, chances are you could have hyperhidrosis:

  • Clammy or wet palms and soles
  • Frequent sweating
  • Sweating through your clothing
  • Skin problems such as fungal or bacterial infections
  • Dealing with sweat constantly such as wiping it away, placing absorbent pads under your arms, frequent washing, wearing clothes to help hide sweat, etc.
  • Emotional or personal issues related to sweating, such as:
    • Worrying about sweat stains
    • Feeling uncomfortable with making physical contact
    • Self-conscious about sweating
    • Social withdrawal
    • Depression
    • Avoiding employment or social situations that require human interaction
    • Constant worry about body odor

If you have any of these symptoms, you should visit your doctor to rule out medical issues and to discuss treatments to help manage your excess sweating.

What are the different types of sweat?

As mentioned, we all have sweat glands throughout our bodies. In fact, we have 2 million to 4 million sweat glands. They are more concentrated in areas such as the soles of the feet, palms of the hands, armpits and groin. Sweat glands look like coiled tubes and have a duct that delivers sweat to the surface of your skin. While eccrine glands produce sweat on the skin, apocrine sweat glands tend to open up around hair follicles.

We all have sweat glands throughout our bodies. In fact, we have 2 million to 4 million sweat glands. 

When people sweat due to exercise and heat, the sweat tends to come from the eccrine glands. However, if people sweat due to emotions or nervousness, the sweat glands that kick into action are mostly under the arms, in the palms, and in the soles of the feet. This creates a thicker sweat from the apocrine glands, which can lead to a smellier sweat.

Why do some people sweat more than others?

Each person has a different threshold that leads to sweating. It is mostly caused by genetics, but other factors that can cause you to sweat more than most people include:

  • Being overweight
  • Having more sweat glands
  • If you are very fit and work out a lot, you might sweat more quickly than others
  • If you are inactive, your body might heat up more quickly when active leading to sweat
  • If you have hyperhidrosis or other medical conditions
  • Stress

When you are sweating uncomfortably more than “normal,” speak to your doctor to discuss possible causes.

Is it OK to sweat a lot?

In general, sweating a lot is not necessarily a bad thing. Each person sweats for different reasons and in different “volumes.” Therefore, what might seem like excess sweat to one person, could be perfectly normal for another. Sweating as a health indicator is misleading. However, because excess sweating is often caused by an underlying medical condition, you should consult a doctor if it persists. Your doctor can help find the possible causes and offer solutions for treatment.

excessive sweating

What causes a person to sweat excessively?

Hyperhidrosis is the medical term for excessive sweating. There are two types of hyperhidrosis:

  1. Primary idiopathic hyperhidrosis: The cause of the sweating for primary hyperhidrosis is unknown. Sweating is localized to specific areas of the body.
  2. Secondary hyperhidrosis: This is caused by a known underlying health condition such as obesity, diabetes mellitus, or an overactive thyroid gland.

The excessive sweating can be “focal,” which means you have sweating localized to certain areas such as the armpits, groin or hands and feet. Generalized hyperhidrosis, on the other hand, affects your entire body.

Causes of primary hyperhidrosis

This seems to be tied to genetics, which means it is inherited from a parent or is shared with a sibling or other family members.

Causes of secondary hyperhidrosis

This can be caused by a long list of underlying health conditions including:

  • Spinal cord injury
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Diabetes
  • Gout
  • Heart disease
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Obesity
  • Parkinson's disease
  • Respiratory failure
  • Shingles
  • Some cancers
  • Some infections
  • Some medications
  • Substance abuse

Although sweating is a fact of life, when you experience excess sweating it could indicate you have an underlying health issue.

When you experience excess sweating it could indicate you have an underlying health issue.

Finding an effective treatment may be as simple as trying out a prescription strength antiperspirant, making dietary and/or lifestyle changes, or wearing Ejis sweat proof undergarments.

To learn more about hyperhidrosis and effective treatments, read our article “How Much Does Hyperhidrosis Treatment Cost?”



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