Social (physical) distancing is a term that has gained a lot of traction and popularity recently, in light of the coronavirus pandemic. To slow the spread of COVID-19 and flatten the curve, health officials around the world have imposed strict social distancing guidelines. This includes staying home, avoiding crowds, refraining from close contact with others, and keeping a 2 meter distance from one another.
Social distancing has proved to be a considerable challenge for most people, and understandably so. Staying away from public places, having to work or study from home, refraining from travel, and not being able to see friends, family, and partners can lead to significant stress, anxiety, and loneliness. For those accustomed to frequently going out, going to the office, and casually hanging out with friends, it's difficult to adjust to a new life of near-isolation.
For many, the term social distancing is new, but what it entails is not. Many opt to stay at home, such is the case with introverts, or many must stay at home for medical reasons or otherwise. One of these groups is hyperhidrosis sufferers, for whom social distancing is a conscious choice and daily reality. In some ways, that the world has caught on and is practicing social distancing habits has offered them some stress relief, as more people understand the limitations facing them on a daily basis.
Hyperhidrosis is a common but seldom spoken about medical condition characterized by excessive sweating that affects at least 5% of the global population. It most commonly affects the hands, feet, and underarms, but can also affect the face and head and the entire body. Despite it affecting so many, it continues to be under-reported, under-diagnosed, and under-treated, due to a lack of awareness and the social stigma attached to sweating. For hyperhidrosis sufferers, social distancing is just a daily reality, and a tactic used by those affected to restrict the amount of people they come into contact with.
Sentiments of fear, rejection, embarrassment, stress, and anxiety are just some reasons hyperhidrosis sufferers limit social contact and do not go out as frequently as they might like to. There have been many articles about adapting to the “new normal” that is social distancing, but for hyperhidrosis sufferers this is their everyday normal (albeit not in measures as drastic as these).
The tactics and measures used by those who sweat excessively have the unintended side effect of being a measure to also reduce the spread of virus and bacteria, so we can learn a lot about the way hyperhidrosis sufferers live their lives.
Below we’ll look at some ways that hyperhidrosis sufferers have social distancing ingrained into their way of living, by no choice of their own but to conceal their misunderstood condition from others and avoid unwanted attention and stigmatization.
Of course, the level at which these measures are employed is in direct relation to the severity of the condition, with cases ranging from mild to severe). At the mild end of the spectrum, the effects may be minimal—a small inconvenience or minor embarrassment. Minor steps may be undertaken to distance themselves from others and stop others from noticing their sweat. But as severity increases, the impact on quality of life becomes much more substantial. The condition can have a huge impact on quality of life, affecting people’s career choices and hobbies and even lead to total social isolation in the most severe cases.
Handshakes and social contact, especially in professional settings, have come under fire recently due to the transmission of bacteria and viruses that can be passed from one individual to the next.
One of the first tips to emerge to prevent the spread of the virus was to refrain from social contact such as handshakes, high fives, and hugs. For those who suffer from hyperhidrosis, these seemingly simple greetings have always been dreaded actions and a source of extreme anxiety.
If you’ve ever had clammy hands, or been on the receiving end of a clammy handshake you know it’s not the greatest feeling. For hyperhidrosis sufferers, it’s not so much a clammy handshake as a full-on soaking handshake, which often takes people aback or makes people visibly uncomfortable or sometimes even vocal about their disgust. This leads them to try to find alternatives.
Some alternatives that have always been favoured by hyperhidrosis sufferers are greetings that require little to no contact, such as fist bumps, waves, and various signs (peace, hang loose, etc.), which fittingly enough happen to be the favoured greetings by germaphobes as well.
Not being expected to engage in this type of social contact has been a relief for many hyperhidrosis sufferers. Many who suffer from excessive sweating take some comfort in the fact that these changes are looking to have a lasting effect, rather than just a temporary one, as originally thought.
Finally, the world seems to be agreeing with what hyperhidrosis sufferers have been saying all along—there is no need for handshakes!
To prevent their sweat from getting on commonly used surfaces (e.g. elevator buttons, door handles, counters, etc.) many hyperhidrosis sufferers carry tissues to use as a makeshift barrier and absorbent towels to soak up the excess sweat. This can also be done in the form of wearing gloves or using their sleeve to cover their sweaty hands while they use doorknobs or other commonly touched and used objects and surfaces. They are not introducing the germs found on their hands to other surfaces, therefore limiting their spread.
Additionally, constantly wiping down and disinfecting surfaces is also just another “day in the life” occurrence for hyperhidrosis sufferers. As excessive sweating leads to sweat marks on everything they come into contact with, hyperhidrosis sufferers are constantly wiping down surfaces to get rid of the sweat marks.
Not wanting to leave sweat marks behind has unintended positive consequences. In their own way, and for unrelated reasons, hyperhidrosis sufferers have always been doing their part in limiting the spread of germs! Now, the world seems to be catching up and realizing how crucial these little actions really are.
Those with hyperhidrosis are at a higher risk of stress, anxiety, and depression. Studies have shown that anxiety, depression, and social isolation in patients with hyperhidrosis were a reaction to the disorder rather than the cause. In other words, social distancing and isolation was not a willing choice, but rather a choice made in relation to reducing their exposure to others in hopes of not having others notice their condition or making remarks about it.
Everyone sweats, but it is still highly stigmatized, and people often express visible disgust when they see others sweating excessively, and are quick to make assumptions about them, often not realizing that it is a medical condition that the person affected has no control over.
This causes a lot of people to become rather introverted, and in some extreme cases can lead to social distancing and even isolation, as studied and documented in several clinical studies. They may avoid social gatherings, such as parties where they’re afraid people may notice their sweat stains through their clothing, or business functions, where the thought of having to shake hands with everyone is enough to make them stay home.
So while not all hyperhidrosis sufferers are introverts or homebodies by choice, many of them feel limited in their freedom and ability to freely go out in public. For those now experiencing these kinds of limitations for the first time due to government-imposed social distancing guidelines, it can be very disorienting, and can really take a toll and feel like a personal attack on freedom. However, this first-time experience for many is key in understanding how those with hyperhidrosis feel every single day! It’s an opportunity to step into someone’s shoes and maybe be more empathetic and not so quick to judge people out in public or those who state they would rather stay home.
Everyone likes to have their personal space respected, and this is especially true for those who suffer from hyperhidrosis. Keeping your distance for fear of people noticing your sweaty hands or feet, or sweat stains is truly an art that hyperhidrosis sufferers have mastered. From wearing dark clothing and multiple layers to hide sweat stains from afar, to keeping hands in your pockets and refraining from wearing sandals—everything is a deliberate choice to minimize the appearance of sweat. Keeping a reasonable distance from those around you is a key strategy in not having others notice your excessive sweating.
Many who suffer from hyperhidrosis also suffer (but not always) from bromhidrosis, a medical condition characterized by extremely foul-smelling sweat leading to a very pungent body odour. While sweat itself is odorless, the scent associated with sweat comes from it being introduced to bacteria on the skin. Those who sweat excessively, particularly the underarms (or full-body) secrete a very noticeable odour. This is another reason why those who suffer from both hyperhidrosis and bromhidrosis like to keep their distance from others, in fear that they may have a strong body odour. This is yet another social distancing guideline that hyperhidrosis sufferers have always employed and will continue to employ beyond what is requested by the government to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. They’ll be the first to tell you that it’s important to respect boundaries and personal space!
Excessive hand washing, showering multiple times a day, and constantly changing clothes are just some necessary tactics used by hyperhidrosis sufferers to minimize the effects sweat has on their body and wardrobe. The rate at which they shower and change clothes greatly exceeds the frequency done by the average person, or what is considered “normal”.
Many people have been experiencing extremely dry or chaffed skin due to excessive hand washing and sanitizer use. Now imagine constantly washing your hands, showering multiple times a day, every single day. Most with hyperhidrosis report that they start sweating excessively mere minutes after getting out of the shower. This leads to them never really feeling as fresh as they would like. Excessive sweating also means that any lotions or sanitizers applied on the hands are quickly washed away.
Of course, since the onset and spread of the coronavirus, people have been washing their hands a lot more frequently. Additionally, when people go out for necessities (such as groceries or medications), they take off their “outdoor” clothes and protective gear before they get back into their house, in order to prevent any potential contamination. Now, those with hyperhidrosis do the same, but for different reasons. Many even carry changes of clothing to and from key places (such as home to the office) because even just the transit from one place to another leaves them soaked in sweat, no matter the outdoor temperature. So this frequent change of clothes, frequent showering, and amped up hygiene practices is yet another tactic employed by hyperhidrosis sufferers that has now caught on because of the fear of catching the virus.
Many are really struggling to deal with physical distancing, and this is an opportunity to get a glimpse into the life of someone who has to deal with it every day. The point at which these restrictive social distancing measures will ease up or end is unknown as yet, though they may be in place for months, rather than weeks as first suggested. This has led many people to worry about the implications this will have on their work, home life, and personal relationships—all things that hyperhidrosis sufferers deal with on the daily.
Social distancing may make the general population more understanding, empathetic, and compassionate towards those who have debilitating conditions and have to continue these measures even once the pandemic subsides. These little “quirks” that you may have never really noticed before, are now recommended actions by government health authorities.
Thankfully, there is no evidence that coronavirus is spread through sweat and experts have debunked that notion, so there’s no reason for hyperhidrosis sufferers to be especially alarmed or feel like their likelihood of transmitting the virus is greater than the average person.
Many have used their extra free time to learn new things, and now’s a great time to earn from one another’s experiences and how challenging it is to live with a generally benign condition that can lead to so many physical, emotional, social, and occupational challenges. About 1 in 20 people are affected by hyperhidrosis, so there is a good chance that you or someone you know has it, and you may have never even noticed it. So now’s a great time to learn more about the condition, because the more understanding and communication there is, the less misinformation that spreads. Educate yourself and those around you and help us eliminate the stigma!