Excessive Sweat Sufferers Are Prisoners

Wendy Burke lives with an embarrassing secret that has made her terrified of first dates, job interviews and parties.

Burke, a 30-year-old schoolteacher, has spent every waking moment of her life in fear that she will break out into an uncontrollable sweat. Her attacks come on quickly and often, sometimes for days at a time.

"Ever since I was in elementary school, I'd say probably second grade, I remember being in class and my hands just sweating as I worked, having my hand on a paper, and the paper being saturated from my hands sweating so much. So, I mean it's really been something I've lived with almost all my life," Burke said on ABC News' Good Morning America.

For years, her condition was a mystery — both to her and her doctors.

"I said, 'Wow, my hands are really sweaty, my feet are really sweaty, is there a name for this condition?' And the doctor laughed me off," Burke said. They said, 'Oh, you're just clammy.' Everybody blew me off."

Finally, while being treated for an unrelated condition, she found a doctor who didn't dismiss her complaints.

"It wasn't until recently, when I had foot surgery, that my podiatrist said, 'You have a condition called hyperhidrosis,' " she said. "And I was just so relieved that there's an actual name behind the condition."

She says she finds solace in the fact that she is not alone.

‘A True Physical Disease’

Dr. David Pariser, president of the International Hyperhidrosis Society, says most people with hyperhidrosis don't seek help because they're humiliated.

"It's quite socially embarrassing and it's a true physical disease," Pariser said. "About 3 percent of Americans are thought to have excessive sweating, and many of these people suffer in silence. They don't even know that it's a disorder. They don't even know that there's help for this."

No one knows what causes people with hyperhidrosis to sweat so much, but Pariser says the condition leaves his patients socially crippled.

"I had a young woman one time who had excessive sweating of her hands who dropped her baby once because her hands were so sweaty," he said. "I had a teenage patient who had to wrap her pencil in school with a paper towel so she could hold it because her hands were so sweaty.

"I constantly hear about patients who are having to change their shirt three to four times a day, who stuff diapers in the sleeves of their shirt under their arms to absorb the moisture, who only buy black clothes and wear multiple layers, who never wear tank tops in the summer because they're afraid of the embarrassment of the sweating."

Today, doctors can offer a wide range of treatments to their suffering patients.

Patients can undergo therapy that involves sending electrical pulses through their sweat glands.

Or, they can turn to Botox, as Burke has. Botox, a neuromuscular blocking agent that has become a popular alternative to plastic surgery, is the latest experimental therapy for hyperhidrosis. It's supposed to paralyze particularly overactive sweat glands.

As a last resort, some desperate patients turn to a controversial surgery in which doctors literally snip the nerves that cause the sweat glands to overact.

Burke says she hopes she'll finally find relief for the medical problem that has plagued her for as long as she can remember.

"I am hoping for a slight miracle, I guess," she said. "I've sweated all my life. I'm just hoping for something better than I have now. Anything could be better than what I have now."

You can find out more about hyperhidrosis at www.sweathelp.org.

ABC News' Mary Harris produced this story for Good Morning America.