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What Sweat Tells Us About Our Health

September 23, 2021

The way, and how much, you sweat can give you a good idea of how healthy you are – and alert you when something might be wrong, 

Made up primarily of water along with trace electrolytes, sodium and ammonia, sweat not only regulates body temperature but plays a central role in day-to-day health. 

Types of Sweat Glands 

Sweat glands are found all over the body, but mostly on the forehead, armpits, groin, palms and soles of our feet. They secrete water and electrolytes through the surface of the skin to maintain our body’s constant temperature. As the water in sweat evaporates, the surface of the skin cools. 

There are three types of sweat glands: 

Eccrine. Found all over the body, these are the most common sweat glands and are responsible for regulating body temperature.  

Apocrine. Triggered by the autonomic nervous system due to nerves, illness or other intense physical conditions, these are the more familiar sweat glands in the armpits, groin, chest and forehead that regulate body temperature under more intense conditions. 

Apoeccrine. These sweat glands secrete more sweat than both of the other types of sweat glands. They continuously secrete sweat and are particularly active during aerobic exercise and during the “fight or flight” response to anxiety or stress. 

Does Sweat Smell? 

Sweat can be associated with unpleasant body odor, but it’s not sweat itself that smells. The odor develops when the ammonia in sweat mixes with bacteria on our bodies. Everyone’s body chemistry is different, which is why some people with higher levels of ammonia in their sweat have worse body odor than a person with lower ammonia levels. 

If there’s a noticeable change in your body odor, bloodwork can measure levels of nitrogen and other electrolytes to make sure they’re at normal levels. Certain kidney diseases may cause sweat to contain excess amounts of ammonia. 

Deodorant vs. Antiperspirant

Deodorants mask odor while antiperspirants help decrease perspiration by stopping the sweat at its source. For a typical day, deodorant is recommended. In more physically demanding conditions such as dancing or stressful meetings, antiperspirant may be more helpful. 

Many antiperspirants contain aluminum or other heavy metals that can be dangerous when absorbed by skin over time. Additionally, antiperspirant users with sensitive skin may experience clogged armpit glands. Aluminum is also the culprit behind yellow underarm stains on clothing. Try an aluminum-free antiperspirantand use deodorant in lieu of antiperspirant whenever possible. 

When to See Your Doctor

  •  Hematidrosis (or hematohidrosis) – A rare condition in which the body sweats blood without prior injury. Often an isolated occurrence that can be brought on by extreme stress.

  • Hyperhidrosis – A medical condition that involves overactive apocrine glands that leads to excess sweating. A dermatologist can offer treatment options such as oral medications to slow down production of sweat or topical wipes and deodorants that target specific areas of the body.

  •  Heatstroke – If you’re so hot that you’re not sweating at all, that’s a big problem. Beyond the point of heat exhaustion or heat stress, heatstroke can occur after prolonged conditions of flushed skin, rapid breathing and dehydration, which means your sweat glands have no fluid left to secrete. If this happens, you will need emergency medical treatment in the form of ice baths, cooling devices or IV fluids. 

Sweat is an indication of proper organ function and nervous system response. If you’re sweating, your body can cool and regulate itself to keep working properly. But if you’re experiencing changes in body odor, excessive sweating or not sweating at all, it’s time to check with the doctor to make sure everything’s OK.

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