Sweat too much? Successful treatments are now available

by Ruth Nichol / 29 December, 2017

Photo/Getty Images

When Anna Jones was a teenager, her feet sweated so much she left a puddle if she sat barefoot on the wooden floor of the school gymnasium. “We had to take our shoes off to protect the floor. I was excused from school assemblies because of it.”

She also had excessive underarm sweating, which made wearing her pale-blue school uniform a challenge. “Wearing any light colour meant I ended up with massive dark patches under the arms.”

Her hands were constantly sweaty, too. “I hated shaking hands with people.”

Jones (not her real name) is one of about 5% of people who suffer from excessive sweating with no medical cause – known as primary focal hyperhidrosis. It typically affects the underarms, the soles of the feet and the palms. Some people also sweat profusely from their scalp or face.

Like most hyperhidrosis sufferers, Jones developed the condition as a young teenager. “I had this constant dripping feeling. It was horrible, uncomfortable and very embarrassing.”

At 16, she had Botox treatment to try to reduce her underarm sweating, but although Botox works well for many people with hyperhidrosis, it didn’t work for her.

During the next few years, she learnt to live with the condition. She wore baggy clothing in black or white, often with a singlet underneath to absorb the sweat. She washed her hands frequently and, while she was training as a nurse, she wore surgical gloves to contain the sweat.

Then she found out about two treatments that have transformed her life.

The first, iontophoresis, has been used to treat excessive sweating of the hands and feet since the 1940s. It involves sending mild electrical currents through water into the skin. The second treatment, miraDry, is much newer. It uses an electromagnetic energy pulse to permanently stop the sweat glands under the arms from working. It was approved as a treatment for excessive underarm sweating by the US Food and Drug Administration in 2011.

Jones bought an iontophoresis machine a year ago, used it daily for two weeks, and had such a good response she now needs top-up treatment only once a month.

“Previously, I could never wear jandals or sandals, as I would literally be sliding about.”

Dermatologist Kevin McKerrow.

In February, she had miraDry treatment at the Skin Specialist Centre in Auckland, the only New Zealand dermatology practice that offers it. At $2850, it’s not cheap, but for Jones it has been worth it.

“I’ve had an 80% reduction in underarm sweating after one treatment, which I’m more than happy with. I sweat like a normal person now.”

Jones is one of more than 100 patients dermatologist Kevin McKerrow has treated with miraDry since 2013. He says a quarter of them need just a single treatment to reduce underarm sweating by 85-100%. The rest need a second treatment four months later.

Although the one-off cost is high, he says it’s cheaper in the long term than using Botox, which can cost up to $1500 a treatment and needs frequent repeats. “Botox goes on and on and on and on.”

According to the US-based International Hyperhidrosis Society (IHhS), Botox can also be used to treat excessive sweating of the hands and feet. However, McKerrow does not offer Botox for that purpose, saying it is painful, time-consuming and can cause side effects such as loss of muscle strength in the hands. Instead, his clinic has started recommending iontophoresis machines to treat sweaty hands and feet.

Other possible treatments for hyperhidrosis include using clinical-strength or prescription antiperspirants on the affected areas – including the hands and feet. IHhS spokesperson Angela Ballard says the antiperspirant should be applied at night so it can penetrate the pores to form a temporary plug. Biomechanical feedback then takes over to stop sweating.

This month, the society is running its first hyperhidrosis-awareness campaign to raise the profile of the condition.

“It’s not well understood or well known, even though studies show it’s rather common,” says Ballard. “People might know that they sweat a lot, but they may not realise they have a medical condition that can be treated.”

See sweathelp.org for more information.

This article was first published in the November 25, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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