A funny thing happened on the way into lockdown. My feet, previously a generally dry part of my body, started to sweat. A lot. It didn’t matter what I wore: moisture-wicking cotton socks, fluffy socks, no socks at all, slippers… A few hours into the day, I would end up with slick feet that made me (and my wife, when I made her look at them to confirm I wasn’t going mad) feel gross.
Of all the problems to be brought on by a global pandemic, this is not the one I expected. Nor is it the most pressing, for me or anyone. But it is bizarre.
Sweating, in normal circumstances, is a perfectly natural phenomenon. Our bodies contain anywhere from 2 million to 5 million sweat glands, which are more highly concentrated in areas like our underarms, the palms of our hands, the soles of our feet and our face. When we overheat, our nervous system activates our sweat glands which in turn secrete water and chemical compounds to cool us down. But the body's system of perspiration isn’t triggered solely by heat: it can also be activated by emotional or medical issues (such as embarrassment or menopause). In excess it is known as hyperhidrosis, a condition caused by overactive sweat glands which affects 1% of the UK population.
I am one of those many lucky people who gets greasy and oily within hours of washing my hair and face. I am also one of those many lucky people who wrestles with terrible bouts of anxiety. And while I sweat when I overheat or do a particularly ambitious HIIT workout in my living room, I never felt my sweating was excessive, until now. This made me wonder if somehow the lockdown was causing it. And so I set out to investigate.
Google trends doesn’t point to a general uptick in sweating in recent weeks, though searches for 'does anxiety make you sweat' have jumped dramatically in April in the UK, reaching peak popularity last week. Other than a couple of relatable tweets, searches on Twitter mainly showed me various sex workers who were selling pictures of sweaty feet or their pre-worn shoes. While I support their endeavours, I was looking for something different.
It could be that I suddenly developed hyperhidrosis. Dr Anton Alexandroff of the British Association of Dermatologists says that the cause and age at which the condition starts can vary from person to person. "The causes of hyperhidrosis are not particularly well understood, except in cases where it is caused by a disease." It comes in many forms, from 'localised symmetrical' (which affects both sides of the body in specific locations like hands, feet and/or face) to 'generalised', which affects the whole body. The cause is not understood in the former, while the latter "can be caused by some illnesses including infections, and by hormonal conditions including the menopause, diabetes and an overactive thyroid gland, as well as some medications," says Dr Alexandroff. "In rare cases, it can be caused by disease or irritation of sympathetic nerves, which are the nerves which the brain uses to send messages to the small sweat glands in the skin."
Richard Oliver from Hyperhidrosis UK points out that since my excessive sweating is a recent onset, "it will almost certainly be secondary hyperhidrosis, which means there will be an underlying cause". There are nearly 100 possible causes but given the fact that the sweating coincided with the beginning of the Unprecedented Times™, it could well be related to the change in circumstances. "All I would say is that if it continues when life returns otherwise to normal then it would be worth discussing with your GP and getting some tests done to rule out the commonly known causes."
Given how anxiety-inducing the world is right now and how the lockdown has confined so many of us to our homes, it’s probably unsurprising that we’re sweatier. "One trigger, which in these uncertain times may be proving to be a common factor, is anxiety. Worrying about sweating can also lead to a vicious circle, making the problem worse," Dr Alexandroff points out. Our lack of mobility, plus the urge to hole up in blankets and soft outfits means we’re probably less good at regulating our temperature. If for example you have Raynaud’s, a condition that affects your circulation, your reduced blood flow could well be resulting in sweaty and then quickly clammy extremities.
If you’ve never experienced excessive perspiration on either a small or large scale, it can seem like an easily dismissible problem. But as Raleigh Dale pointed out when talking to Refinery29 about her hyperhidrosis: "I felt dirty, like my excessive sweating was somehow a reflection of my personal hygiene, my character. More than countless other factors, it contributed to a profound lack of confidence growing up."
Whether this is an ongoing concern or a more recent phenomenon, there are steps you can take to alleviate it. As visiting your GP is not possible for many right now, start by trying commercial antiperspirants and looking for the active ingredient aluminium chloride. Dr Alexandroff says: "Stronger preparations of aluminium chloride can be prescribed for excessive sweating and are mostly used under the arms but can be used on the hands and feet. They should be applied at night only, to dry skin. However, sore red skin is a common problem. This can be reduced by making sure the skin is completely dry before applying the solution, by using hydrocortisone cream to reduce the inflammation, and by using the treatment less frequently and then trying to build up." He adds: "There are a range of other treatments available but [they] would require seeing a doctor."
You can help yourself by being mindful of what you wear and what situations you put yourself in (within reason). Clothes made from fabrics that wick moisture away from the skin can be key, as well as reducing potential triggers like alcohol and spicy foods. If, like me, your feet are the problem, Richard says that not wearing shoes is a good thing as it allows the skin to 'breathe'.
Personally, I’ve found that a combination of reducing my exposure to anxiety-inducing news plus walking around my flat regularly to improve circulation has reduced occurrences of the problem. I’ve also had to take a long, hard look at my emotional dependency on those fluffy socks you get at M&S, which I’m certain were just making things worse. Excessive sweating in times of crisis, it seems, is just one of the many hurdles we have to negotiate during the pandemic. But it helps to remember that you are not alone: forums like Hyperhidrosis UK and Instagram accounts like She Sweats FR can be lifelines for finding solutions or solidarity about having to constantly wash your feet like I currently do.