Do you sweat when you’re nervous?
When sweat starts to pour from your pores, it’s usually trying to cool you down. But have you ever experienced a time when you sweat and it wasn’t hot out, or you weren’t working out? For instance, you might just be waiting to go to a meeting and feeling a little nervous. Nervous sweat, it turns out, is a little different from the other kinds. Here’s why it can come without warning, why it smells bad and what you can do about it.
Sweat to cool the body
That salty fluid called sweat is your body’s response to rising temperatures. You can get hot when the temperature rises or from burning calories during exercise.
When the “thermostat” in your brain thinks your body’s getting too hot, it sends a message to one set of sweat glands called the eccrine glands. These glands are spread all over your body and release sweat that is about 90 percent water. Sweating usually starts slowly and builds.
Sweat connected to emotions
Stress sweat comes from nervous excitement. It usually hits you all at once. When something excites or scares you, your body releases stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol). They set your heart to pounding. And when they tell those eccrine glands to get busy, they also alert other glands: the apocrine glands.
Located in your armpits and crotch, the apocrine glands react instantly. Before long, you may feel drenched. This is because the sweat in these glands is only 80 percent water and 20 percent fat and protein.
Why the smell?
The bad smell comes from bacteria that feed on and reproduce in the fat, moisture and protein. Scientists are trying to determine why the body wants to send that strong smell signal when people are scared, stressed or sexually aroused.
They don’t really know the answer. Researchers found that people who get a whiff of sweaty excitement also become more alert. Maybe it tells them to stay away. In the case of sex, maybe it delivers the pheromones that say you’re ready.
Nervous sweat might have meant something in the evolutionary jungle. But in the meeting, smelling bad and having wet armpits is no advantage.
What can you do about it?
Nervous sweating now and then is just a fact of life for everyone. So if possible, don’t sweat it. Accept sweat with humor. When you know you’re going into battle—er, that meeting—here are some tips for preparing:
- Wear layers and absorbent natural fiber clothing.
- Try stronger antiperspirants.
- Use disposable underarm clothing shields to absorb sweat.
- Lose weight if you’re overweight to reduce sweating.
- Get lots of exercise to reduce stress.
- Practice meditation or deep breathing before you go into a stressful situation to calm your mind and body.
If you need more help for nervous sweating, check with your health care provider. You may have a medical problem or anxiety that needs treatment. Some of the tools doctors can offer include:
- Prescription antiperspirants.
- Anxiety medications.
- Stress reduction counseling.
- Botox injections under the arms (can reduce sweating for up to six months).
- Surgery to remove the sweat glands (a last resort for most people).
So the next time your apocrine glands jump into action, don’t sweat it. Just remind yourself that you live an exciting life.
Dr. Steven J. Heyden is a family medicine physician at the Aurora Health Center in Whitefish Bay, WI.
About the Author
Steven J. Heyden, MD is a family medicine physician at the Aurora Health Center in Whitefish Bay.