“Cold sweat” refers to sudden sweating that is not due to heat or exertion.The medical term for cold sweat is sweat. It is part of the body’s fight-or-flight response to stress.
There are several possible causes of cold sweats. Some may indicate serious injury or illness, such as a heart attack. This makes it important to know a cold sweat when you see them.
This article explains conditions that can cause a cold sweat. It will help you understand why first aid may be needed, what kind of help you can provide, and when sweating is a real emergency.
The difference between a cold sweat and a regular sweat is what someone is doing when it starts. You may be sweating while exercising or working outdoors, but then suddenly break into a cold sweat. They also do this at any temperature.
Sometimes, the patient sweats at night as they try to fall asleep. These episodes are often called night sweats and can point to many other health conditions. They range from the fairly common hormonal changes of menopause to thyroid disease and even cancer.
But as far as sweating itself is concerned, there is little difference in the appearance of night sweats and cold sweats. It’s all sweat, and it’s likely to point to a problem that needs immediate attention.
Any fight-or-flight response that causes physical stress can lead to a cold sweat. The solution to a cold sweat depends on the cause.
When blood flow to the brain and other vital organs becomes very low, the body goes into shock. Due to reduced blood flow, the brain cannot get enough oxygen and nutrients. Shock causes increased stress throughout the body.
Cold sweats are the main symptom of this life-threatening disease. Other symptoms include:
- sudden, rapid heartbeat
- weak pulse
- shortness of breath, more than 20 breaths per minute
- pale complexion
- Weakness or dizziness when sitting or standing
Shock is usually caused by an injury, such as a car accident or a fall. Some injuries may involve significant blood loss, but others do not. That’s because you can’t see the internal bleeding that can happen in your body.
The shock is severe enough to require immediate medical attention. Call 911 for help. While waiting, have the patient lie flat with their feet elevated about 8 to 12 inches. This will help maintain blood flow to the brain and vital organs.
Signs and symptoms of shock
Any infection that causes a fever can cause cold sweats. Sometimes they occur as the fever “flares up” or starts to flinch.
Very severe cases of infection (called sepsis) can cause shock and cold sweats. Some medical conditions that can lead to septic shock include:
- Pneumonia, an infection of the air sacs in the lungs
- urinary tract infection
- bacterial infection in a wound or wound
- Gastrointestinal infections, such as appendicitis or E. coli
If there is a cold sweat but no fever, or other symptoms of shock, the person needs immediate medical attention.
Cold sweats are a reaction to physical stress. They are symptoms of another problem that needs to be recognized and treated, such as shock or infection. You can usually tell the root cause by looking at other symptoms from sweating and the history of causing them.
Cold sweats can be the following symptoms syncope, often called fainting or fainting. Syncope is caused by a sudden drop in blood pressure, sometimes resulting in a brief loss of consciousness. Other symptoms of syncope include nausea or dizziness.
A syncope attack occurs for several reasons. Including:
- slow, fast, or irregular heartbeat (Arrhythmia)
- low blood pressure, often after standing
The cold sweat caused by syncope is similar to that caused by shock. You can help the patient lie flat with their feet elevated. Health care providers need to evaluate the underlying medical cause of syncope episodes.
Serious injuries, such as broken bones or non-surgical amputations, can cause pain and cause cold sweats. If your ankle is broken and you are sweating, you are likely to experience extreme pain. Some medical causes, such as kidney stones, can also cause severe pain.
In some cases, a healthcare provider will provide medication to relieve pain. Cold sweats may decrease once you treat this severe pain.
However, further care is required for the medical cause of the pain or any trauma. Be sure to call 911 or your healthcare provider when this type of severe pain occurs.
In rare cases, severe pain may occur long after a head injury or spinal cord injury. This is a symptom of complex regional pain syndrome. The condition is still poorly understood, but cold sweats are a common feature. This also requires medical attention from a healthcare provider.
Signs that you may have complex regional pain syndrome
Cold sweats are a common sign of a heart attack. Other symptoms of a heart attack may include:
- chest pain or pressure
- pain that radiates (spreads) to the neck or arm
- shortness of breath
- Cyanosis (blue lips or fingers)
- change your heart rate
A heart attack is a real emergency. The faster you act, the better your chances of limiting damage and ensuring better results. Dial 911 immediately. You may also want to take (or give) a chewable aspirin while you wait for help.
A heart attack is one of the most serious reasons why you may have a cold sweat. Along with other symptoms, this is a classic sign that means you need immediate medical attention. Fainting is also often associated with heart disease that may require treatment.
Why you should take aspirin during a heart attack
shortness of breath
Severe shortness of breath can lead to a lack of oxygen in the blood. When a person’s brain begins to crave oxygen, the body mounts a stress response. Among other things, this can also lead to cold sweats.
Other signs of shortness of breath that can accompany a cold sweat may include:
- Shortness of breath
- pursed lips or tripod (lean forward) breathing
- wheezing or coughing
There are many possible causes of shortness of breath. Healthcare providers will need to identify and treat the cause. If the person is using home oxygen, make sure it is turned on and call 911 for help.
Causes and treatment of shortness of breath
HypoglycemiaOr low blood sugar is a fairly common cause of someone having a cold sweat. It is often seen in people with diabetes. The same is true for people with undiagnosed diabetes or prediabetes.
The brain’s response to lack of sugar is as real a threat as it is to lack of oxygen. The reaction included the same cold sweat.
If the diabetic seems confused, call an ambulance and give them glucose (if available). If the patient can drink it, try juice if there is no glucose nearby.
People with low blood sugar levels often experience sudden cold sweats. Once their blood sugar levels return to the normal range, the sweating stops.
Hypoglycemia: Signs, Symptoms, and Complications
fear and anxiety
Fear and anxiety can be stressful for anyone. This stress can cause the fight-or-flight response and all the signs that come with it, including a cold sweat.
Some reasons may be specific events. For example, you may break out in a cold sweat from the fear of going to the dentist. In other cases, your cold sweat may be a symptom of a panic attack or anxiety you’ve experienced throughout your life.
Most people do not need immediate medical attention for a panic or anxiety attack. If cold sweats are part of a pattern, you may need to see a healthcare provider or mental health professional. They can give you an evaluation or prescribe medication to help manage your attacks.
How to Stop Panic Attacks
There is no specific treatment for cold sweats. The real problem is the root cause. For example, if shortness of breath is causing sweating, helping the patient breathe better is the solution. Once they have more oxygen in their bodies, it may help dry out the skin.
In other words, cold sweats aren’t really a problem. They are signs or symptoms of a problem. Identifying cold sweats as they occur can help identify problems before they become more serious.
Because there are many possible causes, it is important to determine the root cause of cold sweats. The correct treatment will depend on the cause.
Cold sweats are there for a reason. The best way to know what’s going on when someone has them is to know what they’re doing when the cold sweat starts.
This, along with other symptoms such as fainting or severe pain, can point to the cause. Heart attacks and hypoglycemia in people with diabetes are examples of true medical emergencies. Do not wait to call 911 so that the person can be immediately treated by a medical professional.
Cold sweats can also be a sign of other health problems, including cancer. If you have cold sweats, especially if they are new, be sure to discuss these issues with your healthcare provider.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why do I wake up in a cold sweat?
So-called “night sweats” can be caused by the same conditions that cause other cold sweats. Possible causes include changes in exercise habits or changes in emotional states such as depression. Sweating can also be a side effect of medication.
Is it normal to have a cold sweat when you stop taking the medicine?
Withdrawal symptoms occur when you suddenly stop using alcohol or drugs after becoming dependent. Sweating is common, especially during opiate and alcohol withdrawal. Some people require careful monitoring for any life-threatening complications that may occur in severe cases.