Diaphoresis is the medical term for "cold sweats," which is sudden, whole-body sweating that doesn't come from heat or exertion. Diaphoresis is a part of the body's fight-or-flight response to stress.
Typical sweating is the body's way of cooling itself. Cold sweats, however, can have a few possible causes. Some may indicate a significant injury or illness, such as a heart attack. This makes it important to know cold sweats when you see them.
This article explains the conditions that may lead to cold sweats. It will help you to know why first aid may be needed, what kind of help you can offer, and when cold sweats are a true emergency.
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Cold Sweats vs. Typical Sweat
What sets cold sweats apart from regular perspiration is what someone is doing when it starts. You might expect to sweat while exercising or working outdoors, but cold sweats come on suddenly. They also do so at any temperature.
Sometimes the sweating happens at night when the patient is trying to sleep. These episodes are often called night sweats and may point to a number of other health conditions. They range from the fairly common hormonal changes of menopause to a thyroid disorder or even certain cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma.
But there is little difference in what night sweats and cold sweats will look like, in terms of the sweating itself. It's all diaphoresis and it may well point to a problem that needs immediate attention.
Common Causes of Diaphoresis
Anything that causes a fight or flight response to stress in the body can cause cold sweats. What is done to fix the cold sweats depends on the cause.
The body goes into shock when blood flow to the brain and other vital organs becomes dangerously low. The brain does not get enough oxygen and nutrients due to the decrease in blood flow. Shock causes increasing body-wide stress.
Cold sweats are a key symptom of this life-threatening condition. Other symptoms include:
- A sudden, rapid heartbeat
- Weak pulse
- Rapid breathing at over 20 times per minute
- Pale skin
- Feeling weak or dizzy when sitting up or standing
Shock is often caused by an injury, such as a car accident or traumatic fall. Some injuries may involve blood loss that's obvious, but others do not. That's because you can't see internal bleeding that may be happening inside the body.
Shock is serious enough to warrant immediate medical attention. Call 911 for help. While you wait, have the person lie flat on their back and elevate the feet about 8 to 12 inches. This will help to preserve blood flow to the brain and vital organs.
Any infection that causes a fever can lead to cold sweats. Sometimes they occur as a fever "breaks" or starts to go back down.
Very severe cases of infection, called sepsis, can lead to shock and cold sweats. Some of the medical conditions that can lead to septic shock include:
If the cold sweats come on without any fever, or if the other symptoms of shock are present, the person needs medical attention right away.
Cold sweats are a response to stress in the body. They are a symptom of another problem, such as shock or infection, that needs to be identified and treated. You can usually tell the underlying cause from other symptoms that come with the sweating and by the history of what brought them on.
Cold sweats may be a symptom of syncope, often called fainting or passing out. Syncope is caused by a sudden drop in blood pressure, sometimes leading to a brief loss of consciousness. Other symptoms of syncope include nausea or vertigo.
There are a few reasons why a syncopal episode can occur. Among them are:
- Slow, fast, or irregular heartbeats (arrythmia)
- Low blood pressure, often after standing up
Cold sweats caused by syncope are similar to those caused by shock. You can help the person to lie flat on their back with their feet elevated. A healthcare provider will need to evaluate the underlying medical reason for a syncopal episode.
Pain From Injuries
Severe injuries, like a fracture or non-surgical amputation, can cause pain that can lead to cold sweats. If you have a broken ankle and you're sweating, there's a good chance that you're in excruciating pain. Some medical causes, such as kidney stones, can cause severe pain too.
In some cases, a healthcare provider will offer drugs to provide pain relief. Once you have this severe pain treated, the cold sweats are likely to diminish.
Further care for the medical cause of the pain or any traumatic injury will be needed, though. Be sure to call 911 or your healthcare provider when this type of severe pain occurs.
In rare cases, severe pain can occur long after a head injury or spinal cord trauma. It is a symptom of complex regional pain syndrome. This condition is still poorly understood, but cold sweats are a common feature. This, too, requires medical attention from a healthcare provider.
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 (a blue tint to the lips or fingers)
- Changes to your heart rhythm
A heart attack is a true emergency. The faster that you act, the better your chances of limiting damage and ensuring a better outcome. Call 911 immediately. You also may want to take (or give) a chewable aspirin while waiting for help.
A heart attack is one of the most serious reasons for why you may experience cold sweats. Taken along with the other symptoms, it is a classic sign that means you need immediate medical attention. Syncope, too, is often related to a heart condition that may need to be treated.
Shortness of Breath
Severe shortness of breath can lead to a lack of oxygen in the bloodstream. When a person's brain begins to crave oxygen, the body goes into a stress response. Among other things, this too can cause cold sweats.
Other signs of shortness of breath that can come with cold sweats may include:
- Rapid rate of breathing
- Pursed-lip or tripod (leaned forward) breathing
- Mental confusion
- Wheezing or coughing
There are many possible causes for shortness of breath. A healthcare provider will need to identify and treat the cause. If the person uses home oxygen, make sure it is on and call 911 for help.
Low Blood Glucose
Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, is a fairly common reason for why someone may have cold sweats. It is seen often in people with diabetes. This also is true for people with diabetes that has not been diagnosed, or in people with prediabetes.
The brain responds to a lack of sugar as a true threat, just as it does to a lack of oxygen. The response includes the same cold sweats.
If a patient with diabetes seems confused, call an ambulance and provide them with glucose if it is available. If the patient can drink, try fruit juice if glucose isn't nearby.
It's common for people with low blood sugar levels to have the symptom of sudden, cold sweats. Once their blood sugar level returns to normal ranges, the sweating will stop.
Fear and Anxiety
Fear and anxiety can cause stress for anyone. This stress can lead to a fight or flight response and all the signs that go with it, including cold sweats.
Some causes might be specific events. For example, you might have cold sweats due to a phobia about a trip to the dentist. In other cases, your cold sweats may be a symptom of panic attacks or anxiety that you experience across a lifetime.
Most people do not need immediate medical attention for panic or anxiety attacks. If the cold sweats are part of a pattern, you may want to see a healthcare provider or mental health professional. They can offer you an evaluation or prescribe medication to help control your attacks.
There is no specific treatment for cold sweats. The real problem is the underlying cause. For example, if shortness of breath is causing sweats, then helping the patient to breathe better is the solution. Once they have more oxygen in the body, it will likely help to dry the skin.
In other words, cold sweats are not the real problem. They are a sign or symptom of the problem. Recognizing cold sweats when they happen can help to identify a problem before it becomes more serious.
Because there are so many possible causes, it's important to identify the underlying reason for cold sweats. The correct treatment will depend on the cause.
Cold sweats happen for a reason. The best way to understand what's happening when someone has them is to know what they were doing when the cold sweats started.
That, along with other symptoms like fainting or severe pain, can point to a cause. Heart attack, as well as low blood sugar in someone with diabetes, are examples of true medical emergencies. Don't wait to call 911 so the person can be treated immediately by a medical professional.
Cold sweats also can be a sign of other health issues, including cancer. If you are having cold sweats, and especially if they are new, be sure to speak to your healthcare provider about them.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why do I wake up in a cold sweat?
So-called “night sweats” can be caused by the same conditions that bring on other cold sweats. Possible causes include changes in your exercise routine or an emotional state like depression. The sweating also may be a side effect of your medications.
Are cold sweats normal during drug withdrawal?
Withdrawal symptoms occur when you abruptly stop using alcohol or drugs after you’ve developed a dependency. Sweating is common, especially during opiate and alcohol withdrawal. Some people need to be carefully monitored for any life-threatening complications that can occur with severe cases.