Cold Sweats: What to Know About Causes and Treatments, According to Experts

Learn why you shouldn't ignore them if they happen often

Sometimes, the body can experience something called "cold sweats," Erik Blutinger, MD, an emergency medicine physician at Mount Sinai Queens, told Health. Cold sweats—the experience of feeling cold and sweaty at the same time—can occur with or without a fever. "Cold sweats are a bit of a medical mystery," Dr. Blutinger said. "They involve a lot of complicated parts of the human body."

While the term "cold sweats" isn't an actual medical diagnosis (there's a lot about the phenomenon that's open to interpretation), doctors still know what patients are talking about when they describe the feeling. Here's what you need to know about cold sweats, plus what they can mean—and how to get rid of them.

What Are Cold Sweats?

Sweat is a normal bodily function—you sweat, for the most part, when your body gets hot and needs to cool down (e.g., when it's warm outside, when you exercise, or even when you're anxious, nervous, or afraid).

Normally, "sweating is your body's response to various internal and external stressors," Arindam Sarkar, MD, a primary care physician and assistant professor of family and community medicine at Baylor University, told Health. "Normal sweating cools your body through evaporation and occurs in response to excess warmth or exertion."

But cold sweats are slightly different. Cold sweats can be used to describe chills, night sweats (i.e., getting sweaty when you sleep), or diaphoresis—that is, sweating in response to an illness or medication, Dr. Sarkar said. Basically, there's a wide range here.

In general, though, experts agree that cold sweats are when you start sweating, but you feel chilly, making this slightly different from regular sweating, where you perspire and just feel normal.

Health or Medical Issues as a Cause

Generally, the symptom can be narrowed down to infection, fever, or other underlying health issues, Kathryn Boling, MD, a primary care physician at Baltimore's Mercy Medical Center, told Health. If you start experiencing motion sickness, one of the symptoms can be queasiness and cold sweats.

"Rarely, cold sweats can be an indication of other non-infectious diseases including cancers, or they can even be caused by medications," Roshi Gulati, MD, a family medicine physician at Northwestern Medicine Huntley Hospital, told Health.

Caused by Hormonal Changes

A PLoS One study published in January 2021 noted that individuals going through menopause could experience cold sweats. Cold sweats, therefore, can even be a sign of hormonal changes, like going through a hot flash during menopause or having your hormone levels readjust after pregnancy, Dr. Boling said.

Stress or Anxiety as a Reson

Furthermore, feelings of stress or anxiety can also lead to cold sweats. Researchers of a 2020 International Journal of Latest Research in Humanities and Social Science study found that students in junior high school reported experiencing cold sweats as part of their anxiety symptoms about situations such as dealing with subjects they had not yet mastered.

Fever Caused

In the case of a fever, you'd likely develop cold sweats when your fever starts to break, Dr. Boling said. "You can be in a situation where you've been really hot because of the fever, it breaks, and then you sweat and feel chilled," Dr. Boling added. (Having an infection could cause the fever that leads to cold sweats, she pointed out.)

Exercise Induced

You can even get cold sweats when you exercise or just wrap up a workout session, David Cutler, MD, a family medicine physician at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., told Health. "If you've been sweating and then you suddenly cool off or go out into cold weather, that can cause cold sweats," Dr. Cutler said. This—like in the case of hormone changes and low blood sugar—is an instance in which cold sweats can happen without a fever.

What Do Cold Sweats Feel Like?

But whatever the cause, Dr. Boling said the sweat part usually comes first. "You don't feel cold and then sweat because of it. You sweat, and then you feel cold because there's moisture on your skin."

Like all things cold sweat-related, this doesn't have a one-size-fits-all answer. "The symptoms differ from person to person and also vary depending on their cause," Dr. Gulati said. But, in general, you can expect the following when you have cold sweats:

  • Sweating
  • Chills
  • Clammy skin or damp palms
  • Discomfort

How To Treat Cold Sweats?

"Treatment for cold sweats is based entirely on the underlying cause," Laura Miller, MD, a family medicine physician with the University of Minnesota Medical School and University of Minnesota Physicians, told Health. So it's really crucial to pay attention to any other symptoms you might be having and even to write them down if you don't think you're experiencing a medical emergency, Dr. Miller added.

That said, it's understandable that you don't just want just to hang out and wait for your cold sweats to go away. Dr. Gulati recommended putting on layers and adjusting them until you feel comfortable. And, if you have a fever, "it's not uncommon to remove a layer and then put it back on again" if you start to feel cool again.

If you suspect that you do, in fact, have a fever, or you verify it with a thermometer, Dr. Boling said you could take fever-reducing medication like acetaminophen to help you feel more comfortable. A fever may also indicate a viral infection, like the flu or COVID-19. In that case, it's best to talk to your healthcare provider about what you should do.

When To Seek Medical Attention

You'll want to contact a healthcare professional if your cold sweats are accompanied by clammy skin and, per MedlinePlus, symptoms such as:

  • A change in medical status or ability to think
  • Pain or discomfort in your chest, abdomen, or back
  • Headaches
  • Black, bright red, or maroon stool (suggesting blood in the stool)
  • Recurrent or unyielding vomiting (especially if it includes blood)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Signs of shock

The American Heart Association (AHA) also lists cold sweats among the symptoms of a heart attack, so pay attention if you experience cold sweats alongside discomfort in your chest or upper body, nausea, or lightheadedness.

Finally, if you're having cold sweats on a regular basis or you're having them alongside symptoms like chest pain, difficulty breathing, feeling faint, or pain, it's time to seek medical care, Dr. Blutinger said. "Cold sweats can happen, but they shouldn't be a regular thing."

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