What Is Diaphoresis?

Learn the causes of cold sweats

Diaphoresis is the medical term for cold sweats—moments of sudden, whole-body sweating that doesn't come from heat or exertion. Diaphoresis is a part of the body's fight-or-flight response to stress.

Typical sweating is the body's way of cooling itself. Cold sweats are unrelated to this and have a few possible causes. Sometimes diaphoresis indicates a significant injury or illness, such as a heart attack. This makes it important to know cold sweats when you see them.

This article explains the conditions that may lead to diaphoresis. It will help you to know why first aid may be needed, what kind of help you can offer someone experiencing them, and when cold sweats are a true emergency.

Cold Sweats vs. Typical Sweat

You might expect to sweat while exercising or working outdoors, but diaphoresis can come on suddenly and at any temperature.

Sometimes diaphoresis happens at night when a person is trying to sleep. These episodes are often called night sweats and may point to a number of other health conditions. They range from the fairly common hormonal changes of menopause to a thyroid disorder or even certain cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma.

But there is little difference in what night sweats and cold sweats look like, in terms of the sweating itself. It's all diaphoresis and it may well point to a problem that needs immediate attention.

Common Causes of Diaphoresis

Anything that causes a fight or flight response to stress in the body can cause cold sweats. What is done to fix the cold sweats depends on the cause.

causes of cold sweats

Verywell / Cindy Chung


The body goes into shock when blood flow to the brain and other vital organs becomes dangerously low. The brain does not get enough oxygen and nutrients due to the decrease in blood flow. Shock causes increasing body-wide stress.

Diaphoresis is a key symptom of this life-threatening condition. Other symptoms include:

  • A sudden, rapid heartbeat
  • Weak pulse
  • Rapid breathing at over 20 times per minute
  • Pale skin
  • Feeling weak or dizzy when sitting up or standing

Shock is often caused by an injury, such as a car accident or traumatic fall. Some injuries may involve blood loss that's obvious, but others do not. That's because you can't see internal bleeding that may be happening inside the body.

Shock is serious enough to warrant immediate medical attention. Call 911 for help. While you wait, have the person lie flat on their back and elevate the feet about 8 to 12 inches. This will help to preserve blood flow to the brain and vital organs.


The flu, COVID-19, and any other infection that causes a fever can lead to cold sweats. Sometimes they occur as a fever "breaks" or starts to go back down.

Very severe cases of infection, called sepsis, can lead to shock and diaphoresis. Some of the medical conditions that can lead to septic shock include:

If the cold sweats come on without any fever, or if the other symptoms of shock are present, the person needs medical attention right away.


Cold sweats may be a symptom of syncope, often called fainting or passing out. Syncope is caused by a sudden drop in blood pressure, sometimes leading to a brief loss of consciousness. Other symptoms of syncope include nausea or vertigo.

There are a few reasons why a syncopal episode can occur. Among them are:

  • Slow, fast, or irregular heartbeats (arrythmia)
  • Low blood pressure, often after standing up

Diaphoresis caused by syncope is similar to cold sweats caused by shock. You can help the person to lie flat on their back with their feet elevated. A healthcare provider will need to evaluate the underlying medical reason for a syncopal episode.

Pain From Injuries

Severe injuries, like a fracture or non-surgical amputation, can cause pain that can lead to cold sweats. If you have a broken ankle and you're sweating, there's a good chance that you're in excruciating pain. Some medical causes, such as kidney stones, can cause severe pain too.

In some cases, a healthcare provider will offer drugs to provide pain relief. Once you have this severe pain treated, the cold sweats are likely to diminish.

Further care for the medical cause of the pain or any traumatic injury will be needed, though. Be sure to call 911 or your healthcare provider when this type of severe pain occurs.

In rare cases, severe pain can occur long after a head injury or spinal cord trauma. It is a symptom of complex regional pain syndrome. This condition is still poorly understood, but diaphoresis is a common feature. This, too, requires medical attention from a healthcare provider.

Heart Attacks

Cold sweats are a common sign of a heart attack. Aside from diaphoresis, other symptoms of a heart attack may include:

  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Pain that radiates (spreads) to the neck or arm
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Cyanosis (a blue tint to the lips or fingers)
  • Changes to your heart rhythm

A heart attack is a true emergency. The faster that you act, the better your chances of limiting damage and ensuring a better outcome. Call 911 immediately. You also may want to take (or give) a chewable aspirin while waiting for help.

Shortness of Breath

Severe shortness of breath can lead to a lack of oxygen in the bloodstream. When a person's brain begins to crave oxygen, the body goes into a stress response. Among other things, this too can cause diaphoresis.

Other signs of shortness of breath that can come with cold sweats may include:

  • Rapid rate of breathing
  • Pursed-lip or tripod (leaned forward) breathing
  • Mental confusion
  • Wheezing or coughing
  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety

Low Blood Glucose

Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, is a fairly common reason for why someone may have cold sweats. It is seen often in people with diabetes. This also is true for people with diabetes that has not been diagnosed and those with prediabetes.

The brain responds to a lack of sugar as a true threat, just as it does to a lack of oxygen. The response triggers diaphoresis.

If a patient with diabetes seems confused, call an ambulance and provide them with glucose if it is available. If the patient can drink, try fruit juice if glucose isn't nearby.

Fear and Anxiety

Fear and anxiety can cause stress for anyone. This stress can lead to a fight or flight response and all the signs that go with it, including cold sweats.

Some causes might be specific events. For example, you might have cold sweats due to a phobia about a trip to the dentist. In other cases, your cold sweats may be a symptom of panic attacks or anxiety that you experience across a lifetime.

Most people do not need immediate medical attention for panic or anxiety attacks. If diaphoresis is part of a pattern, you may want to see a healthcare provider or mental health professional. They can offer you an evaluation or prescribe medication to help control your attacks.


There is no specific treatment for diaphoresis. The real problem is the underlying cause. For example, if shortness of breath is causing sweats, then helping the patient to breathe better is the solution. Once they have more oxygen in the body, it will likely help to dry the skin.

In other words, cold sweats are not the real problem. They are a sign or symptom of the problem. Recognizing cold sweats when they happen can help to identify a problem before it becomes more serious.


Cold sweats happen for a reason. The best way to understand what's happening when someone has them is to know what they were doing when the diaphoresis started.

That, along with other symptoms like fainting or severe pain, can point to a cause. Heart attack, as well as low blood sugar in someone with diabetes, are examples of true medical emergencies. Don't wait to call 911 so the person can be treated immediately by a medical professional.

Cold sweats also can be a sign of other health issues, including cancer. If you are having cold sweats, and especially if they are new, be sure to speak to your healthcare provider about them.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why do I wake up in a cold sweat?

    So-called “night sweats” can be caused by the same conditions that bring on other cold sweats. Possible causes include changes in your exercise routine or depression. The sweating also may be a side effect of your medications.

  • Are cold sweats normal during drug withdrawal?

    Yes, especially during opiate and alcohol withdrawal. Some people need to be carefully monitored for any life-threatening complications that can occur with severe cases.

10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Mold JW, Holtzclaw BJ, Mccarthy L. Night sweats: a systematic review of the literature. J Am Board Fam Med. 2012;25(6):878-93. doi:10.3122/jabfm.2012.06.120033

  2. Bonanno FG. Clinical pathology of the shock syndromes. J Emerg Trauma Shock. 2011;4(2):233-43. doi:10.4103/0974-2700.82211

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How is sepsis diagnosed and treated?.

  4. Iwase S, Nishimura N, Mano T. Role of sympathetic nerve activity in the process of fainting. Front Physiol. 2014;5:343. doi:10.3389/fphys.2014.00343

  5. Alkali N, Al-Tahan A, Al-Majed M, Al-Tahan H. Complex regional pain syndrome: A case report and review of the literatureAnn Afr Med. 2020;19(1):68. doi: 10.4103/aam.aam_23_19

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart attack symptoms, risk, and recovery.

  7. Berliner D, Schneider N, Welte T, Bauersachs J. The Differential Diagnosis of Dyspnea. Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2016;113(49):834-845. doi:10.3238/arztebl.2016.0834

  8. Tesfaye N, Seaquist ER. Neuroendocrine responses to hypoglycemia. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2010;1212:12-28. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.2010.05820.x

  9. Shimoda H, Takahashi T. Intravenous sedation management for an outpatient with dental phobia and vasovagal reflex following an atrioventricular junctional rhythm: A case reportScience Progress. 2021;104(3):003685042110337. doi: 10.1177/00368504211033708

  10. Grover S, Ghosh A. Delirium tremens: Assessment and managementJ Clin Exp Hepatol. 2018;8(4):460-470. doi:10.1016/j.jceh.2018.04.012

Additional Reading