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Why Stress Makes You Sweat, and How to Stop the Stink

Your sweat glands may sense that you're freaked out before you do.

Jessica Rendall Wellness Writer
Jessica is a writer on the Wellness team with a focus on health news. Before CNET, she worked in local journalism covering public health issues, business and music.
Expertise Medical news, pregnancy topics and health hacks that don't cost money Credentials
  • Added coconut oil to cheap coffee before keto made it cool.
Jessica Rendall
Medically Reviewed
Reviewed by: Troy Mensen, DO
Troy Mensen is a family medicine doctor based in Chicago. He received his Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine from Des Moines University College of Osteopathic Medicine and holds a certification in family medicine from the American Board of Family Medicine. He is licensed by the State of Illinois Medical Examining Board.
Expertise Family medicine, and osteopathic medicine. Credentials
  • American Board of Family Medicine
  • Family Medicine State of Illinois, Medical Examining Board License
  • University of Northern Iowa, BA
  • Des Moines University College of Osteopathic Medicine, DO
3 min read
Close zoom-in of woman's scrunched eyes with beads of sweat
RapidEye/Getty Images

You're feeling lightheaded and your face is flushed. You're so nervous and sweaty, you're shaking like a dog in the rain. 

You've got a big case of the stress sweats. 

Perspiration is your body's way of cooling down when it's starting to get overheated. That's why you may notice more sweat after a workout, running up a flight of stairs or while sitting in a hot room or out in the sun. 

But sometimes you start sweating when you're faced with the stressors of the day-to-day. The adrenaline your body produces when it senses danger (stress or anxiety) can also trigger your sweat glands to start working overtime and keep you cool during a fight with a lion (or when you merge during rush hour). 

The catch: stress sweat is typically thicker -- and can lead to a stronger smell -- than regular sweat, according to Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a neuropsychologist in New York. 

"The evolutionary theory behind why stress sweat smells so bad is that it's believed the odor triggers an alert response in our brains," Hafeez said in an email to CNET. "When humans smell this type of perspiration, we can tell it's the physical response to a mental concern, like fear or anxiety." 

"This stench alerts the people in the area that there is something scary happening here that we would not like to be a part of," she says. 

Here's what to know about stress sweat, and how to cope with it.

Woman raising her right arm and sniffing her armpit

Stress sweat smells worse for a reason.

Katleho Seisa/Getty Images

Does stress sweat smell worse than regular sweat? 

The sweat you release from being hot or overexerting yourself is mostly made of potassium, salt and water. It's also mostly released from eccrine glands, which are relatively shallow and exist all over your body. Stress sweat, on the other hand, is mostly produced by apocrine glands, which lay deeper under your skin and closer to hair follicles – places including your armpits, groin and scalp. 

Stress sweat produced from these glands is thicker or "milkier" because it's made up of fatty acids, proteins and steroids, Hafeez says. It doesn't initially have an odor, but its thickness means it takes longer to evaporate off your skin, giving it more time to mix with bacteria and produce that telltale body odor smell.

Can you treat stress sweat? 

The most immediate and short-term solution to managing stress (or anxiety) sweat is by finding a clinical strength antiperspirant, Hafeez says. But finding a real solution may not be so easy. 

"The more efficient, but more complex, answer is to deal with the nervousness," Hafeez says. Finding out what's making you nervous or stressed -- and what's triggering you to sweat -- will be the first step in working through the anxiety and finding a solution.

"This way, the next time you find yourself in a similar scenario, you will find your body not reacting as strongly to the unease you may be experiencing," she says.

Read more: 7 Ways to Relieve Stress in a Stressful World

Sweaty man holds his forehead and closes eyes
Adam Pretty/Getty Images

When to see a doctor for stress sweat 

Hafeez says making a doctor's appointment may be a good idea if you're experiencing a lot of sweating at night, or if it begins to occur more often or at unexpected times (instances that aren't related to your stress or anxiety triggers). 

Sweating profusely can also signal heart problems or even a heart attack, so it's important to listen to your body and get checked out if you have any concerns.

But oftentimes, sweating out of anxiety or stress causes more psychological problems than any physical concerns. According to the International Hyperhidrosis Society, between 25 and 32% of people with social anxiety experience hyperhidrosis, the medical term for excessive sweating.

If you're sweating so much that it's causing you emotional distress or leading you to withdraw socially, Hafeez says, consider making an appointment with a health care professional. 

Read more: How to Stop and Prevent an Anxiety Attack

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.