Ask the Expert

Answered By:


Elizabeth A. Liotta, MD

Board Certified Dermatologist

Q:

Why do stressful situations always seem to make me break out in a cold sweat?

A: 

These days it seems like everyone is stressed out, especially women! Stress can be your friend or your foe. When stress fuels the spark of personal achievement, it can work to your benefit by making you more perceptive and productive, acting as a motivator and even making you more creative. But when stress gets out of control—as it often does for many of us—it can take a toll on your body in many ways.

When stressed, hormones including adrenaline and cortisol flood the body, resulting in things like increased heart rate and tensed muscles. That rush of adrenaline can also cause another physical side effect—sweat. And research shows that this sweat caused by stress can make you smell worse than a workout at the gym.

Many people aren’t aware that there are three primary causes of sweat. The best-known causes are physical activity, such as when you work out, and heat, such as when you step outside on a 90-degree day. The third, lesser-known cause of sweat is stress.

Sweat caused by stress comes from the eccrine glands—where sweat from activity and heat comes from—as well as from the appocrine glands. The appocrine glands are larger and are found primarily in the underarm area. This stress sweat contains a lot of the nutrients that bacteria feed off of, and it's the bacteria feeding off of sweat that produces most of the resulting odor. That means that stress-induced sweat smells worse than sweat from other causes.

Not only does stress sweat smell the worst, your body also produces more sweat in stressful situations. Under stress, your underarms release short, powerful bursts of sweat and can sweat an average of 30 times more than when at rest.

To combat those stressful, sweaty situations, you may want to try a clinical-strength antiperspirant. Those antiperspirants are stronger to help combat excessive sweating. If you are worried about odor, look for a clinical-strength antiperspirant that can neutralize odors and contains fragrances.

If you are concerned that you may have a medical problem that causes you to sweat excessively, talk to your health care professional about other medical options.