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Cold Sweats

Treatment and Causes of Cold Sweats


Updated May 20, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Woman having night sweats
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"Cold sweats" refers to sudden sweating that doesn't come from heat or exertion. The medical term for cold sweats is diaphoresis. Cold sweats come from the body's response to stress, called a fight or flight response. It's very important to recognize cold sweats when providing first aid. Cold sweats can be a sign of significant injury or illness.

Recognizing Cold Sweats

What sets cold sweats apart from regular sweating is what the victim is doing when they start. You would expect sweating after doing a few jumping jacks or push ups, but cold sweats come on suddenly and at any temperature.

Treatment of Cold Sweats

There is no specific treatment of cold sweats. To make them go away, you must treat the underlying cause. For example, if shortness of breath is causing cold sweats, helping the victim to breathe better should help dry the skin.

Cold sweats are not the problem; they are the sign of the problem. Recognizing cold sweats when they happen can help identify a problem before it gets too bad.

Causes of Cold Sweats

Anything that causes a fight or flight response in the body can cause cold sweats. There are four basic causes we should be concerned about:

  1. pain
  2. lack of oxygen
  3. fear
  4. low blood sugar (hypoglycemia)

Shock is dangerously low blood flow to the brain and other vital organs. The lack of blood flow delivers less oxygen and nutrients to the brain, which causes stress. Shock is a life-threatening condition and recognizing cold sweats is an important key to identifying shock.

Another drop in blood pressure called syncope, which often causes fainting, can lead to cold sweats. Many people will start sweating with severe or sudden nausea or vertigo.

Intense pain from severe injuries like fractures or amputations, as well as significant medical problems like heart attack or stroke, can lead to cold sweats. If a victim of a broken ankle is sweating, it's a good bet he or she is in excruciating pain.

Severe shortness of breath can lead to a lack of oxygen in the bloodstream. When the victim's brain begins to crave oxygen, a stress response is triggered, causing cold sweats, among other things. Look for other signs of shortness of breath in a victim with cold sweats.

Too little sugar in the bloodstream (hypoglycemia) is a fairly common complication in diabetic patients. The brain regards a lack of sugar as just as serious an emergency as a lack of oxygen. The response is the same.

Lastly, fear and anxiety are definite causes of stress for anyone. Anything from intense panic to everyday anxiety can lead to a fight or flight response and all the signs that go with it, including cold sweats.

There are other causes of cold sweats that aren't necessarily emergencies, such as the hormonal changes that come with menopause or chronic conditions like cancer. It's important to discuss common signs and symptoms of chronic medical problems with your doctor. Most importantly, if you're concerned about cold sweats -- especially the first time it happens -- see a doctor.

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