Smelly Armpits

It is not possible to tell the extent of smelly armpits but when it causes distress and psychological problems, it is time to look for a long-lasting solution.

What causes smelly armpits?

Smelly armpits can cause real embarrassment in public and can even damage self-esteem. However, the body needs to maintain a normal temperature when it is hot. To do so, the eccrine glands located in the armpits secrete sweat, while the sympathetic nervous system triggers and controls the production and output of sweat. Once the sweat evaporates from the surface of the skin, the body experiences a cooling effect. Once it interacts with bacteria that live on the skin, sweat can produce a repulsive odor.

Heat and exercise

The hypothalamus in the brain contains nerve cells that sense the temperatures on the surface of the skin and in the body. An increase in metabolic rate during exercise or exposure to heat causes the body to heat up thus extending to the surface of the skin. This triggers the hypothalamus to activate the sympathetic nervous system, which in turn initiates the production of sweat by the sweat glands in the armpits and all over the body.

Stress and anxiety

Emotional distress triggers the body's flight-or-fight response to stressors. The hypothalamus, in this case, works with the adrenal glands to coordinate this response, while the body system also increases basal metabolism to produce sufficient energy that increases sweating. Emotional distress activates the release of the hormone epinephrine, which causes the eccrine glands to produce sweat on the soles of the feet, palms of the hands, underarms, and forehead. Sweating caused by stress and anxiety is usually cold because it precedes a rise in temperature in the body.


Whether in tea, coffee, chocolate, or some soft drinks, caffeine stimulates the sympathetic system to cause sweating. The best way to deal with problematic sweating caused by caffeine is to cut it off.

Medical reasons

Hyperhidrosis is a medical condition that literally means excessive sweating, which is usually more than what is required for normal body functioning. The excessive sweating in the palms of the hands, underarms, and soles of the feet is known as focal hyperhidrosis, while that which occurs all over the body is known as generalized hyperhidrosis.

Hormone imbalances also trigger excessive sweating, for example, during menopause when a patient experiences hot flashes and sweating. Sometimes in pregnancy, increased levels of progesterone can trigger underarm sweating.

Hyperthyroidism, which refers to an overly active thyroid gland, can lead to increased production of thyroid hormone, which increases heat production and body metabolism and consequently sweating.

Other triggers of excessive sweating include:

  • Smoking
  • Anger
  • Excessive weight

When Hyperhidrosis becomes serious

Focal hyperhidrosis is medically not considered severe, but other forms of excessive sweating can be a sign for underlying medical problems. Generalised hyperhidrosis is many times caused by illnesses of diseases that affect the whole body. Problems of the hormones, infections, cancer, and nerve problems can be responsible for the condition. It can occur in sleep, unlike its counterpart that only happens in the waking hours. All-over body sweating should be enough reason to see a doctor.

You can tell if you have hyperhidrosis if the factors that induce sweating in other people only serve to make the condition worse in you. Some of the tell-tale signs of the condition include:

  • Unnecessary sweating
  • Failure of antiperspirants to work
  • History of excessive sweating in the family.

What to do about smelly armpits

While sweating is a necessary process for a healthy body, it can be quite uncomfortable for people who sweat excessively. It causes inconveniences like:

  • Having to change clothes frequently because of sweaty or smelly underarms
  • Avoiding handshakes
  • Keeping away from social gatherings because of fear of sweating in public
  • Challenges with intimate relationships

Most people who have hyperhidrosis have a lowered quality of life because of the embarrassment that comes with excessive sweating. Unfortunately, most people do not seek treatment, yet there is something they can do about the condition. Although there is no one perfect treatment, application of these suggested methods can go a long way in the initial treatment of hyperhidrosis.

  • Over-the-counter antiperspirants. Applied to the sweaty areas, they offer an effective treatment option for sweaty armpits, palms, or soles.
  • Prescription antiperspirants. Some heavy sweating conditions may not be treated by over-the-counter antiperspirants and will require stronger prescriptions from a doctor. These contain aluminum salt-based products that have higher strength, and which are more useful for more severe cases of excessive sweating.
  • More advanced treatments for hyperhidrosis. These include iontophoresis, botulin toxin A, and Mira dry system. Iontophoresis refers to the process of soaking hands and feet in water and having a mild electric current passed. It is useful in keeping sweating levels at the minimum but requires frequent treatments. Botulin is a Botox injection that turns off the sweat glands for a month. It is more effective than other therapies although quite painful and may require anesthesia. The Mira dry system is a device that makes use of electromagnetic energy to get rid of underarm sweat glands. It is not recommended for other areas of the body.
  • Oral hyperhidrosis medications are also useful in controlling the condition. However, their side effects might limit their usage.
  • In case the above treatment options fail, surgery might be necessary. Endoscopic thoracic sympathectomy (ETS) is the most invasive type of surgery. This approach should be considered last because of the risk involved as well as the serious side effects. Surgery can result in heat intolerance, extreme hypotension, and arrhythmia.

Preventing excessive sweating

Nothing works better than understanding the factors that trigger excessive sweating and cutting them off. For example, if stress triggers the condition, find ways to keep yourself happy and less stressed.

  • Keep a sweat journal in which you note down all the conditions and situations that trigger sweating
  • Wear clothing that does not openly show when you sweat. For example, clothes made from cotton absorb moisture keeping your armpits dry. You should also consider wearing undershirts.
  • Avoid spicy foods, garlic, and onions, and change your diet.