Chills: Causes and Treatments

Medically Reviewed By Avi Varma, MD, MPH, AAHIVS, FAAFP
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Having chills refers to feeling excessively cold. Cold temperatures, infections, and inflammatory or malignant conditions may cause chills. Chills commonly occur alongside a fever, which can be a sign of infection or inflammation. To relieve chills, you will need to warm up or treat the underlying condition.

This article explains possible causes of chills, how to treat them, and when to contact a doctor. 

What causes chills?

A child wearing a winter jacket
Saptak Ganguly/Stocksy United

Chills can result from a wide variety of conditions.

Exposure to cold

Exposure to cold temperatures can cause chills as muscles contract and relax to warm the body.

Hypothyroidism

Hypothyroidism occurs when the thyroid gland is unable to produce sufficient amounts of thyroid hormones. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, people with hypothyroidism can be more sensitive to cold temperatures. This increases the likelihood of experiencing chills.

Learn more about hypothyroidism here.

Infections

Many types of infection, including bacterial, viral, and fungal, may cause chills.

Infections that may cause chills include:

Chills and fever commonly occur alongside each other, and both can be symptoms of infections. Part of your body’s response to infection is to raise your body temperature, creating a fever.

Most pathogens that cause infection survive best at an average body temperature. Therefore, a fever can help remove or prevent the spread of infectious pathogens. Chills result from the rapid contraction and relaxation of the muscles to increase body temperature.

Inflammatory conditions

Chills can result from various inflammatory conditions, including:

Malignant conditions

Some cancers, such as non-Hodgkin lymphoma or leukemia, can cause chills. In addition, cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy or immunotherapy, can cause flu-like symptoms. These may include chills, fever, and nausea.

What are the treatments for chills?

Treating chills generally involves addressing the underlying cause. For example, people in a cold environment should move to a warmer environment or put on additional protective clothing.

People with hypothyroidism usually need thyroid hormone replacement from medications such as levothyroxine. Doctors may also recommend dietary changes.

Doctors typically prescribe antibiotics for certain bacterial infections, such as UTIs or strep throat.

Antiviral medications can help treat viral infections. Antifungal drugs can help people with fungal infections.

Over-the-counter medications can relieve chills and other symptoms of common conditions, like the flu or cold. These medications include ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol).

People with IBD or other inflammatory disorders may need steroids. Steroids can help relieve inflammation and the associated symptoms. Immunosuppressive drugs can also be beneficial.

What other symptoms might occur with chills?

Chills often occur with other symptoms, including:

  • aches and pains
  • cough
  • diarrhea
  • earache
  • fever
  • general feeling of illness
  • hot, dry skin
  • sweating
  • lethargy
  • nausea
  • rash
  • vomiting

Sometimes, chills can be a symptom of a serious or life threatening condition. Seek prompt medical care if symptoms persist for more than 2 days or cause you concern.

What are the potential complications of chills?

In some cases, serious or life threatening conditions cause chills. Without treatment, these conditions can result in severe complications, including:

It is important to follow your treatment plan to reduce the risk of complications.

When should you contact a doctor about chills?

Chills are often mild in nature. They usually are not associated with serious medical conditions.

In some cases, however, chills may occur with other symptoms that do indicate a serious or life threatening condition. These conditions require immediate evaluation in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you have chills with any of these symptoms:

  • change in level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out or unresponsiveness
  • fever higher than 101oF (38oC)
  • pale or bluish coloration of the skin, lips, or nails
  • persistent watery diarrhea, possibly with blood
  • respiratory problems, such as difficulty breathing or wheezing
  • seizure
  • stiff neck, possibly with nausea, vomiting, and confusion
  • severe headache

Frequently asked questions

These are a few other questions people commonly ask about chills. Dr. Avi Varma has reviewed the answers.

Can COVID cause chills?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID-19 can cause chills. Other symptoms may include fever, cough, difficulty breathing, and headache.

What does having chills without a fever mean?

You may experience chills without a fever if you are in a cold environment. Additionally, people with hypothyroidism can have trouble tolerating cold temperatures.

What is the best medicine for chills?

Treating chills depends on the underlying cause. For example, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to clear certain bacterial infections and treat your symptoms. Contact your doctor to determine the best way to relieve chills.

When should I worry about chills?

If your chills last for more than a few days or do not improve with self-care, contact your doctor. Chills may be a symptom of a serious underlying condition.

Summary

Chills can be a symptom of conditions including exposure to cold, hypothyroidism, infections, or malignant conditions. Treating chills depends on addressing the underlying condition or moving to a warmer environment.

Contact your doctor if you are experiencing severe or persistent chills. Your doctor can help you determine the underlying cause and an appropriate treatment plan.

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Medical Reviewer: Avi Varma, MD, MPH, AAHIVS, FAAFP
Last Review Date: 2022 Sep 6
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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