What Is a Cold Sweat?
This article explains what a cold sweat is, the conditions that can cause it, and when to seek medical care. It also describes further symptoms relating to cold sweats.
A cold sweat is a condition in which you suddenly begin to sweat.
The body sweats as a way to keep itself cool. It is normal to sweat if you are in a warm environment or exerting yourself. The body also sweats as a reaction to stress or anxiety. This type of sweat often feels cool instead of warm.
A cold sweat can be a symptom of a variety of mild to serious conditions. It can even occur with a life threatening condition that requires emergency medical care, such as a heart attack, a severe injury, or shock.
Some underlying causes of a cold sweat can lead to life threatening complications. You should seek immediate medical care for chest pain, shortness of breath, severe abdominal pain, or a change in your level of consciousness or alertness, either with or without a cold sweat.
A cold sweat often occurs with other symptoms. These can vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder, or condition.
Symptoms that may occur with a cold sweat include:
Serious symptoms that might indicate a life threatening condition
In some cases, a cold sweat may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious or life threatening condition.
Seek immediate medical care for any of these potentially life threatening symptoms, either with or without a cold sweat:
- a change in your level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out or becoming unresponsive
- a change in your mental status or sudden behavioral changes, such as confusion, delirium, lethargy, hallucinations, or delusions
- chest pain or a feeling of tightness, pressure, or squeezing in the chest, upper back, jaw, shoulder, or arm
- difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, or wheezing
- gray or bluish coloration of the skin, lips, or nails, which is known as cyanosis
- high fever
- heart palpitations
- a seizure
- severe pain
- throat tightness or swelling of the face, tongue, or mouth
- uncontrolled bleeding
- vomiting blood, passing bloody stools, or experiencing heavy rectal bleeding
A cold sweat can occur without any physical exertion or heat. It can be due to mental and emotional stress, anxiety, or panic. It can also be the result of a variety of diseases and disorders. In some cases, a cold sweat may even be a symptom of a serious or life threatening condition.
Common causes include the following.
Breaking out in a cold sweat can be a symptom of a
- chest pain, pressure, or tightness
- pain or discomfort in the arm, shoulder, neck, jaw, or back
- shortness of breath
Hyperhidrosis is the medical term for excessive sweating. It is not dangerous, but it can be embarrassing and interfere with activities. People with hyperhidrosis most often sweat from the palms, feet, underarms, and head. Issues can include:
- a fast or irregular heartbeat
- nervousness, shakiness, or weakness
- sleep problems
- unintended weight loss
- a bluish skin color
- rapid breathing
- a weak or rapid pulse
Infections commonly cause fevers and cold sweats or chills. Other symptoms of infections will depend on the type. Examples of infections include pneumonia, tuberculosis, peritonitis (an infection of the lining that surrounds the abdomen), and pyelonephritis (a kidney infection).
Other diseases, disorders, and conditions that can cause a cold sweat
Other conditions that can cause sweating include:
- anaphylaxis, which is a life threatening allergic reaction
- excessive alcohol use and alcohol withdrawal
- kidney stones
- Parkinson’s disease
- rheumatoid arthritis
- severe pain
- stress, anxiety, and anxiety disorders, such as a panic attack
Questions for diagnosing the cause of a cold sweat
To diagnose the underlying cause of a cold sweat, your doctor will ask you some questions about your symptoms. Questions may include:
- How long have you had a cold sweat?
- Are you currently experiencing stress or anxiety about something in your life?
- Are you in pain?
- Have you recently had an insect bite or ingested a new type of food or drink?
- Have you had a fever or other symptoms of an infection?
- What other symptoms do you have?
If cold sweats persist or cause you concern, contact your doctor. It is important when you experience a cold sweat that you pay close attention to all the symptoms you are experiencing. This may help identify and guide treatment of the underlying cause.
For life threatening causes, such as a heart attack, seek immediate medical attention.
Because a cold sweat is a symptom rather than a condition itself, the treatment will depend on the cause. Some underlying causes, such as hyperthyroidism, will require medications or procedures.
If you have diabetes, you will learn how to recognize low blood sugar and treat it. When menopause is the cause, hormone replacement may be an option. Otherwise, other medications and lifestyle changes may help relieve symptoms.
For people with hyperhidrosis, there are several treatment options, including:
- antidepressants, which may decrease sweating and help with anxiety
- botulinum toxin injections for underarm sweating
- iontophoresis, which uses an electric current to turn off the sweat glands
- medications that can block the nerves that supply the sweat glands
- prescription-strength antiperspirants and creams to reduce sweating
A cold sweat is a symptom of another problem. The potential complications will depend on the underlying cause. Even seemingly simple causes, such as a cold or the flu, can lead to complications. In some cases, a cold sweat can be due to a serious or life threatening condition, such as shock or a heart attack.
A cold sweat can feel like cold, clammy, or cool skin that happens without heat or exerting any effort. It can be an indication of an underlying issue, such as anxiety or a common cold.
It is important to recognize the symptoms of a cold sweat and to seek immediate medical care if you think it may be due to a serious cause, such as a heart attack.