Causes and Treatment of Cold Sweats

When to Worry

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. It comes from the body's response to stress, called the fight or flight response. It's very important to recognize cold sweats when providing first aid, which can be a sign of significant injury or illness.


What sets cold sweats apart from regular sweating is what the patient is doing when they start.

You would expect to sweat after doing a few jumping jacks or push-ups, but cold sweats come on suddenly and at any temperature.

Sometimes the sweating happens at night when the patient is trying to sleep. This is often referred to as "night sweats" but there isn't any actual difference between night sweats and cold sweats. It's all diaphoresis and it points to a larger problem.


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 sweats, helping the patient to breathe better should help dry the skin.

diaphoresis is not the problem; it is the sign or symptom 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.

  • 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 diaphoresis. Many people will start sweating with severe or sudden nausea or vertigo.
  • Intense pain from severe injuries like fractures or amputations, or the chest pain of a heart attack, can lead to cold sweats. If a patient with 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 patient'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 patient 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.


Kyaw TH, Sullivan L, Klingsberg RC. A 45-Year-Old Woman With 3 Weeks of Cough and Night Sweats. Chest. 2016 Mar;149(3):e87-90. doi: 10.1016/j.chest.2015.08.014.

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