Taming those odor-causing sweat glands

Q and A

April 29, 2005|By Judy Foreman | Judy Foreman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

What can you do about smelly feet and armpits?

Lots, including washing a lot and keeping these areas as dry and cool as possible.

As you may have noticed, sweat, which helps regulate body temperature, smells different in different parts of the body. That's because the skin contains different kinds of glands. The more common are the eccrine glands, which pump out salty water (sweat).

Sweaty feet smell bad because of bacteria that feed off this sweat and dead skin, said Dr. Robert Stern, chief of dermatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. Some strong odors, like garlic, are also pumped out in sweat, he said. The bad smell of athlete's feet is produced by a combination of fungus and bacteria.

The armpits and groin also contain apocrine glands, which pump out a number of substances, including mate-attracting pheromones.

To combat odor, you can, in addition to washing, use baby powder to sop up sweat, leaving less for bacteria to feed on. Anti-perspirants reduce sweat by blocking eccrine glands. Deodorants are really just perfumes, though some also contain anti-perspirants.

For really bad foot odor, some people swear by anti-microbial socks that contain silver-coated nylon, which may inhibit the growth of bacteria. Other people swear by insoles containing super-activated charcoal and baking soda.

For profusive sweating, a condition called hyperhydrosis, a liquid solution called Drysol (available by prescription) can help "shrivel up sweat glands," said Dr. Samuel Ahn, chief of endovascular surgery at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine.

Botox injections, which deadens the nerves that trigger sweating, also help, especially in the armpits. (Feet are too big and too sensitive for the 60 to 100 injections it would require.)

As a last resort, there's surgery to remove pieces of the sympathetic nerves that supply the hands, armpits or feet. It can help, but a major risk is that it may actually increase sweating on the trunk.

What makes hair go gray? Can you go gray suddenly if you're sick or upset?

In young people, hair gets its characteristic blond, brown or black color from varying amounts of a pigment called melanin, the same pigment that colors skin.

But with normal aging, hair follicles produce less and less melanin, allowing the underlying white color of hair to become apparent.

A head of hair looks gray when some hair has turned white and the rest is still pigmented.

Some auto-immune problems, in which antibodies mistakenly attack parts of the body, including melanin-producing cells in hair follicles, can also lead to gray hair. If a person has Hashimoto's disease, for instance, in which antibodies attack the thyroid gland, he or she may also have other antibodies that attack melanin-producing cells in follicles, said Dr. Adrian Dobs, an endocrinologist at the Johns Hopkins University.

Another auto-immune problem called alopecia areata, in which hair falls out, can also appear to make a person go gray rapidly, said Dr. Howard Baden, a dermatologist at Massachusetts General Hospital. "In this disease, colored hairs fall out while white hairs may not be affected. If that happens, you would turn gray rapidly, not because of a change in pigment but because the darker hairs fell out," he said. When hair grows back, it comes in white.

Although age is the greatest predictor of gray hair, some people do turn gray "prematurely," and sometimes this tendency runs in families, said Dobs.

There are only two ways to deal with gray hair. Love it or dye it.

Do you have a medical question? You can submit questions via e-mail to foreman@baltsun.com.

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