Sweating, also known as perspiration, is a vital bodily function that helps regulate body temperature. Everyone sweats, but some sweat more than others. Sweat is most commonly triggered by hot temperatures, stress, and illness. If you’re always sweating without the presence of a recognized trigger, then you may suffer from the medical condition known as hyperhidrosis.
What is Hyperhidrosis?
Hyperhidrosis is a common medical condition characterized by excessive sweating affecting up to 4.8% of the global population. Those who suffer from the condition can sweat 4-5 times more than the average person!
It is often referred to as the “silent handicap”, as people rarely talk about the condition nor seek medical help, which leaves many to suffer in silence. There are a lot of misconceptions about hyperhidrosis. In fact, many do not even realize that excessive sweating is a recognized, treatable medical condition. Some do not even know that there is a word for it!
Primary hyperhidrosis is a chronic condition that has no known cause (idiopathic). Research indicates that it may be hereditary and linked to an overactive sympathetic nervous system.
Primary hyperhidrosis is generally present and diagnosed in childhood, and almost always before young adulthood. It is localized, meaning it affects one or more specific areas of the body. The most commonly affected areas are the hands, feet, and underarms. When more than one area is affected, it is referred to as multifocal hyperhidrosis.
While this condition is non-life-threatening, it can have a serious impact on an individual’s occupational, physical, emotional, and social life. The condition can take a significant toll on its sufferer, leading them to live and plan their life around the condition, even leading them to completely avoid social interaction and gatherings.
Fortunately, highly effective treatment is available. Iontophoresis is a highly effective non-invasive, needle-free, and drug-free treatment option. Learn more by visiting our iontophoresis page!
Excessive sweating can be a symptom of an underlying medical condition or can be a side effect of a medication. If that is the case, then it is referred to as secondary hyperhidrosis, as it is not of primary origin. It is generalized, meaning it usually affects the whole body. The best course of treatment for this type of hyperhidrosis is to consult a medical professional in order to identify and treat the root cause.
Iontophoresis has been used to treat excessive sweating on the hands and feet since the 1940s. Recently there have been device improvements to make the treatment more effective for other body areas, too.
Iontophoresis is often recommended for people who’ve tried prescription or clinical strength antiperspirants, but need a stronger treatment. For people with hyperhidrosis of the hands and/or feet, iontophoresis treatments has been shown to dramatically decrease sweating. One study found that iontophoresis helped 91% of patients with excessive palmoplantar (hands and feet) sweating. Another study showed that iontophoresis reduced palmoplantar sweating by 81%.
During iontophoresis, a medical device is used to pass a mild electrical current through water (usually using shallow pans for hands or feet or specific pads for other body areas) and through the skin’s surface. There are no significant or serious side effects and the benefits are long-term, provided you keep up with the maintenance schedule your doctor recommends (usually once per week).
Instructions for using iontophoresis devices will vary (always follow your healthcare provider’s or device maker’s recommendations) but, in general, patients sit with both hands or both feet, or one hand and one foot, immersed in shallow trays filled with tap water for a short period of time (15 to 40 minutes depending on the device) while the device sends a small electrical current through the water. (For other body areas, recommendations will vary and pads that hook up to the iontophoresis machine are used.) The process is normally repeated three times per week until the desired results are achieved. Once satisfactory dryness has been reached, patients are switched to a maintenance schedule, usually once per week. To maintain sweat-relief, iontophoresis treatments need to be conducted regularly and before sweating begins to return. Discuss the technique of performing iontophoresis with your doctor and follow your device’s manufacturer recommendations.
Sometimes, tap water in certain geographic locations may be too “soft” for iontophoresis to work — it doesn’t contain many minerals or electrolytes (tiny particles that help the electric current travel through the water and into the skin). Adding about a teaspoon of baking soda to the trays of water can help. Further, if iontophoresis with plain tap water or tap water with baking soda doesn’t produce the desired dryness, a prescription medicine for hyperhidrosis such as an anticholinergic (for example, Robinul/glycopyrrolate) may be crushed and added to the water. In the majority of cases, this makes the iontophoresis therapy effective. Dee Anna Glaser, MD, President and founding board member of the International Hyperhidrosis Society, offers this advice: “I generally start with 2 mg [of anticholinergic] per tray, but will adjust the dose based on efficacy or side effects. In the majority of cases, this is effective and results in dramatically drier hands and/or feet.”
There have been reports of onabotulinumtoxinA (Botox) being added to iontophoresis water trays. While there have been no conclusive studies of this method, it strikes us as an impractical approach to iontophoresis given the high cost of Botox, the potentially significant amount of Botox needed to have an effect via this delivery method, and the low cost and significant effectiveness of tap water iontophoresis treatments. If you are interested in Botox treatments for hyperhidrosis, you’ll find lots of information here.
Iontophoresis Devices & Costs
At first glance, an iontophoresis device may seem pricey, but the expense is relatively reasonable when you realize that the devices last for many years (even decades), you can self-manage your treatments, and devices can be shared among family members (hyperhidrosis frequently runs in families). Also, health insurance often covers the cost of an iontophoresis device and sometimes “rent-to-own” is an option (more information below). Hint: Always check our Fan Fave Products for discount codes before you buy.
There are a variety of prescription plug-in iontophoresis devices available. If you are in the U.S., before buying, check to see if the device you are considering is registered with and cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In Canada, check for a medical device license by Health Canada. Elsewhere in the world, check with the appropriate regulatory bodies.
Note that a prescription from a physician is often required.
For mild to moderate hyperhidrosis, a battery-operated, non-prescription iontophoresis device may suffice but note that their reported sweat reduction rates are often less than that those of plug-in devices.
Some people have also tried alternative, less expensive, homemade iontophoresis devices but we’ve heard that these types of devices yield unsatisfactory results and may even cause harm.
For information about specific iontophoresis devices and for discount codes specifically for International Hyperhidrosis Society readers, visit our Fan Faves page.
Medical Devices: Cleared vs. Approved
If you’ve read this far, you already know that iontophoresis is a hyperhidrosis treatment using a medical device, not a medicine. But medical devices and medications have something in common in the U.S. – they both fall under the regulations of the FDA, with some subtle differences.
When FDA review is needed prior to marketing a medical device, the FDA will either:
- “Clear” the device after reviewing a premarket notification, or
- “Approve” the device after reviewing a premarket approval application
Tips for Successful Iontophoresis
Successful iontophoresis treatment will depend on the patient. Dr. David Pariser, International Hyperhidrosis Society founding board member and 2009 President of the American Academy of Dermatology, says: “The ideal candidate for this treatment is a motivated patient. Treatments can continue indefinitely; however, one of the major limitations of iontophoresis is the time commitment, especially early in the course of treatment. Some people find it to be too much of a hassle. But others enjoy the independence of managing their therapy and getting great results. It’s like physical therapy.”
Effective iontophoresis requires a learned technique so, ideally, you’ll have access to a healthcare professional who can coach you through the first few sessions of your therapy. Then, if you and your doctor decide that iontophoresis is a good treatment choice for you, your doctor can write you a prescription for a home-use iontophoresis device.
This type of back and forth with your doctor is not, however, always possible. If that’s the case, don’t be discouraged, many patients can learn how to use iontophoresis effectively by reading the manual carefully, talking to their device’s manufacturer, and by reading resources on this website.
Having trouble finding a healthcare provider (HCP) who truly understands hyperhidrosis? You can find physicians (and other HCPs) familiar with excessive sweating by using our Physician Finder and using the additional search criteria: “IHhS Educated.” At our training sessions, we teach healthcare professionals about all the current hyperhidrosis treatment options, including iontophoresis.
Ready to give iontophoresis a shot? Here are some important tips:
- If possible, learn how to use iontophoresis effectively in a clinical office from a trained health professional before trying it at home.
- Expect to feel a mild tingling sensation during iontophoresis.
- Know that the electric current used during iontophoresis is not strong enough to cause a harmful shock but it could startle you, so don’t remove your hands or feet from the water during treatment.
- Don’t use iontophoresis if you are pregnant, have a pacemaker, have a substantial metal implant in the current path (such as a joint replacement), or have a cardiac condition or epilepsy. Not sure? Talk to your doctor.
- Remove jewelry before iontophoresis treatments.
- Cover scratches, tender cuticles, and nicks in your skin with a petroleum jelly (like Vaseline) before treatment. If redness occurs at the water line, cover that area with petroleum jelly, too. Keep in mind that petroleum jelly is, however, a barrier to iontophoresis, so apply it only as necessary. Use a Q-tip to help.
- Treat any post-treatment, mild skin irritation or redness with 1% hydrocortisone cream.
- Talk to your doctor if the treatment doesn’t seem to be working. Adding baking soda or a prescription medicine (anticholinergic) to the water can help.
- If excessive dryness occurs, use a moisturizer after treatment sessions.
- When it comes to obtaining insurance coverage for the purchase of a home-use iontophoresis device, help is available.