Apocrine and eccrine glands comprise the two types of sweat glands. While both glands produce sweat and have the potential to become blocked or clogged, they differ slightly. While apocrine glands open to a hair follicle, eccrine glands open directly on the skin’s surface. Additionally, apocrine glands are more concentrated on the scalp, armpits, and in the groin area, while eccrine glands are more dispersed across the entire body. Because of this slight difference, apocrine glands are more likely to become blocked, as hair follicles can become infected or inflamed, leading to an issue with the associated apocrine gland.
Due to their differing locations, they do serve slightly different functions. The sweat produced by apocrine glands tends to be thicker and have a more pronounced smell than the sweat that is produced by eccrine glands, which is thinner and functions primarily as a cooling mechanism. However, both types of sweat glands are sensitive to excessive sweating, hot and humid environments, inflammation, and irritating factors such as tight clothing and friction, which lead to inflammation and blockages.
Regardless of the cause, blocked sweat glands have the same symptoms including pain and itching in the area of blockage, swelling, and redness. In more severe cases, a boil may form that generates pus due to infection, or a rash may develop if multiple sweat glands are affected.
Blocked sweat glands can be caused by a number of factors including excessive sweating, infection, exposure to certain types of environments and external irritants.
Because sweat is composed of minerals as well as water, residue and deposits can be left on the skin after sweating. When one sweats excessively, there can be a buildup of minerals and residue, which can aggregate in the sweat gland, whether it be apocrine or eccrine, and cause a blockage. Hyperhidrosis, or excessive sweating, can be caused by genetic factors, other underlying medical conditions, or have pharmacologic and nutritional drivers as well.
Infection is also a contributing factor to blocked sweat glands. This is more common for apocrine sweat glands due to their location and the thicker, oilier sweat that these glands produce. When sweat byproducts build up, the deposits can hold onto bacteria, leading to infection and inflammation that blocks the sweat gland. When the infection begins in a hair follicle that then spreads to an apocrine sweat gland, this is known as folliculitis or hidradenitis, whereas infections of eccrine sweat glands are known as miliaria. Hidradenitis is noted to be more common in women, African-Americans, obese people, and smokers.
Prolonged exposure to hot and humid environments such as saunas can also lead to blocked sweat glands. Humid environments tend to inhibit evaporation of sweat compared to more arid environments. Because of this, residue has more of a chance to build up and cause a blockage in sweat glands.
Other external factors such as tight clothing and friction can lead to blocked sweat glands as well. Tight clothing can prevent evaporation of sweat and cause a build-up of residue in sweat glands and cause irritation of hair follicles leading to folliculitis. Additionally, sustained exposure to friction in certain areas such as the armpits and other areas with high concentrations of apocrine sweat glands can lead to irritation and inflammation that cause sweat gland blockages and could lead to infection as well.
Given the myriad ways blocked sweat glands can become blocked, there a variety of ways to treat this occurrence as well.
In the case of sweat gland blockages due to excessive sweating, or hyperhidrosis, addressing the underlying causes of this condition can help treat blocked sweat glands. Remedies such as Botox injections, certain medications and even dietary changes can help reduce sweating and treat sweat gland blockages. In the case of hyperhidrosis due to pharmacologic or nutrition reasons, consulting with a physician for adjustment of medication or dietary changes can help relieve the conditions that lead to sweat gland blockages.
For sweat gland blockages due to infection, treating the underlying infection is the most effective way to definitively cure the blockage and prevent a recurrence. Be sure to thoroughly clean the skin and pay special attention to areas with higher concentrations of apocrine sweat glands. Other things such as warm compresses and astringents may help loosen the buildup and clean out the affected glands, resolving the blockage. Additionally, an antibiotic regimen may be necessary if the infection is more severe and requires a more systemic approach.
Blocked sweat glands due to exposure to hot and humid environments and other external factors can be treated much in the same way as blockages due to infection and hyperhidrosis. Additionally, making sure to thoroughly clean any irritated or inflamed skin is important as well as changing into looser fitting clothing to help prevent further irritation can help reduce inflammation and residue buildup that leads to sweat gland blockage.
Preventing blocked sweat glands is largely accomplished by maintaining a thorough cleaning regimen and paying special attention to areas where apocrine sweat glands are in higher concentration, such as underarm areas, the scalp, and the groin. Outside of this, due to the different causes of sweat gland blockages, there are more specific measures that can be taken to prevent this condition as well.
For individuals with hyperhidrosis, it is important to address the underlying medical factors that contribute to excessive sweating such as diabetes and cardiovascular and neurologic conditions as well as congenital conditions. Additionally, undergoing Botox injections as suggested for the treatment of blocked sweat glands can also help reduce sweating, especially in the underarm areas, which will help in the prevention of blocked sweat glands due to excessive sweating. Also, paying special attention to the side effects of certain medications, especially if an individual has a family member with hyperhidrosis or other contributing factors, is very important in preventing sequelae such as blocked sweat glands.
Paying special attention to areas that have higher concentrations of apocrine sweat glands is also essential to help prevent blocked sweat glands. If areas of inflammation or redness are noted, it is important to keep the area clean and dry until the irritation resolves.
In addition, wearing loose-fitting, well-ventilated clothing is very helpful in preventing sweat gland blockages if it is known that you will be in a hot, humid area for an extended period. This will ensure that sweat will evaporate quickly and not trap residue and bacteria against the skin, reducing the chance of the development of a blockage.
Taking steps such as proper hygiene and environmental precautions to prevent blockages to sweat glands can also help reduce further complications such as infection and discomfort.