What Is a Cold Sweat?

Medically Reviewed By Lauren Castiello, MS, AGNP-C
Was this helpful?
12

A cold sweat is sudden sweating without heat or physical effort. Your skin tends to feel clammy, very cool, or cold. It can affect the palms, underarms, or feet and can have various causes. It is important to recognize a cold sweat, as it could indicate a serious illness. 

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. 

What are cold sweats?

sweating face
Alison Winterroth/Stocksy United

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.

When you have a cold sweat, you may also look very pale and feel weak, be short of breath, or have other symptoms, such as chills or chest pain. 

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.

What other symptoms might occur with 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:

What causes a cold sweat?

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.

Heart attack

Breaking out in a cold sweat can be a symptom of a heart attack. Other possible symptoms of a heart attack include:

  • chest pain, pressure, or tightness
  • lightheadedness
  • nausea
  • pain or discomfort in the arm, shoulder, neck, jaw, or back
  • shortness of breath

Hyperhidrosis

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:

  • problems grasping objects due to slipperiness
  • skin infections
  • soft, white, peeling skin

Hyperthyroidism

Hyperthyroidism is an overactive thyroid gland. Sweating and heat intolerance are common symptoms. Other possible symptoms include:

Hypoglycemia

A cold sweat can also be a symptom of hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar. Other possible symptoms include:

Hypotension

Hypotension, or low blood pressure, may or may not cause symptoms. Low blood pressure with sweating can be a symptom of shock, which is life threatening. Other symptoms of shock may include:

  • a bluish skin color
  • rapid breathing
  • a weak or rapid pulse

Infections

Infections commonly cause fevers and cold sweats or chills. Other symptoms of infections will depend on the type. Examples of infections include pneumoniatuberculosis, peritonitis (an infection of the lining that surrounds the abdomen), and pyelonephritis (a kidney infection).

Menopause

Menopause often causes hot flashes. This is one of the most common symptoms. Sometimes, a cold sweat or a cold chill will follow the hot flash. Other effects of menopause include:

Other diseases, disorders, and conditions that can cause a cold sweat

Other conditions that can cause sweating include:

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?

When to contact a doctor

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.

What are the treatments for cold sweats?

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

When infections cause fever and sweats, be sure to drink plenty of fluids. Dress in layers and use light covers so that you can adjust for chills and sweats.

What are the potential complications of a cold sweat?

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

Summary

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.

Was this helpful?
12
Medical Reviewer: Lauren Castiello, MS, AGNP-C
Last Review Date: 2022 Apr 20
View All Symptoms and Conditions Articles
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.