A cold sweat is a sign of sudden, significant stress, which could be physical or psychological in origin, or a combination of the two.
The average person has 2 to 4 million sweat glands. There are two different kinds of sweat glands: the eccrine, which are found all over the body and help control body temperature, and the apocrine, which are located primarily in the groin and underarm areas.
The sweat produced by the eccrine sweat glands is mostly water, which helps to cool the body down. While heat can sometimes trigger the apocrine sweat glands, these glands are usually activated by stress and hormonal changes, which is why they play a significant role in cold sweats.
Anxiety and stress are the most common prompts for the fight or flight response and the resulting cold sweats.
Other situations and conditions that prompt cold sweats may include:
- Anxiety disorders: Cold sweats can be a symptom of panic attacks, social anxiety, and generalized anxiety. Individuals who experience cold sweats, along with increasing and, at times, overwhelming levels of anxiety, should see a specialist to explore treatment options.
- Pain and shock: Cold sweats with pain, often due to accidents or other injuries, can be a sign of increased heart rate, blood diverted to major organs, and low blood pressure. Prompt medical treatment is needed. Shock can be fatal if untreated.
- Heart attack: Cold sweats can be a warning sign of a heart attack. If an individual feels sweaty and clammy, is short of breath, and is experiencing pain in the chest or upper body, they should seek medical care immediately.
- Hypoxia: Hypoxia is the technical term for lack of oxygen, which can develop when areas in the body are not getting enough oxygen, perhaps due to blockage, injury, or exposure to poisons or allergens. It can cause cold sweats and requires immediate treatment.
- Hypoglycemia: Also known as low blood glucose, hypoglycemia occurs when an individual’s blood sugar drops below normal. This condition is a particular risk for people with diabetes.
- Hot flashes, night sweats, and menopause: Changes in hormone levels associated menopause and perimenopause can prompt bursts of sweating.
- Infection: Sweating can be a sign of the body’s response to many different infections, including tuberculosis and HIV.
The fight or flight response, which helped ancient humans survive in a more physically dangerous world, prepared the body to battle with an enemy or run away. The fight or flight response still operates in people today, but it is more likely triggered by a traffic jam than a saber-toothed tiger.
The physical responses sparked by the stress response include:
- faster heart beat
- more rapid and shallow breathing
- reduced blood flow to the digestive system, leading to less saliva and a dry mouth
- the release of endorphins
- the opening of sweat glands
Cold sweats are different from regular sweats in that they do not develop as part of the body’s cooling response. This means that people experiencing a cold sweat may have skin that is clammy and cool, and they may report feeling cold. Sometimes the skin may appear quite pale.
Cold sweats on their own do not usually lead to complications. However, if cold sweats are due to underlying health conditions, such as heart disease, life-threatening complications can develop. Also, because the skin is frequently wet, skin infections are a potential complication.
Common treatments for cold sweats include:
The following tips can help individuals manage and prevent cold sweats:
- Keeping skin clean and dry: Regular bathing and use of antibacterial soap can help individuals reduce odors associated with cold sweats. Making sure the skin is dry protects the skin, helps keep bacteria at bay and reduces the clammy discomfort of cold sweats.
- Alternate shoes: Wearing different shoes on different days can help individuals with sweaty feet keep their feet dry and reduce odors.
- Wear absorbent footwear: Wool socks and socks made for sports tend to absorb more moisture and are helpful for people with cold sweats.
- Finding ways to relax: Practicing yoga, meditation, and biofeedback can help individuals reduce some of the stress that is at the root of cold sweats.
- Adjust the diet: Some foods and beverages, such as caffeine, can make people sweat, so reducing consumption of these can reduce the frequency of cold sweats.
Sometimes, an underlying condition will be evident; for example, when a person is sweating due to the pain and shock of an injury. Treating the injury and managing the symptoms of shock can usually bring cold sweats under control.
At other times, the underlying causes can be murkier or more challenging to confront. While individuals are working with their care providers to identify more complex issues, it can be helpful to treat the symptoms at the same time.