Why Do I Sweat When I'm Cold? 5 Reasons You're Perspiring While You Shiver, According To Science
Perspiration bothers me less than the average human being — since I grew up in Georgia and have been addicted to hot yoga for a while now, I'm used to being sweaty. But then I started sweating in the dead of New England winter; I was shivering and wearing several layers, but when I got home and stripped down to just a t-shirt, I was weirded out by the wet pit stains on my shirt. We all know the primary purpose of sweating: when the external temperature is high, glands open up in order to produce perspiration, thus regulating the body temperature. So why was I glistening in January, in the freezing cold, while wearing a beanie and two pairs of socks?
"Sweating is normal," Dr. Sheel Desai Solomon, MD, a board-certified dermatologist, tells Bustle. "Everyone needs this bodily function to naturally cool off and get rid of excess heat from working muscles, detoxify dissolved solids, and send sodium (salt) back into the blood to maintain salinity in the body." What's more, Desai Solomon notes, "Everyone sweats differently under different circumstances."
What's important to know, though, is what's normal for your body. And if your body does something that feels a little out of left field, you can bet your bottom dollar there is something it's trying to tell you. And unusual sweat is no exception.
Desai Solomon tells Bustle there are a number of reasons you could be dealing with unusual sweating, some temporary, and others more serious. As always, speak to a doctor if, in your gut, you feel like something is definitely off — but if you're just wondering why you sweat through a snowy winter (or arctic air conditioning), read on to discover the five common causes behind cold weather sweating.
1. Low Blood Sugar
When you skip meals or haven't munched on anything in a while, our body reacts. Lack of glucose in the blood levels causes us to produce adrenaline in an attempt to compensate for the lack of nutrition. In other words, the sympathetic nervous system switches on, dropping into the "fight or flight" mode — this phenomenon is also known as hypoglycemia. You naturally produce insulin when you're hungry, which prepares the body for digestion; so when it is combined with adrenaline, it can cause our bodies to function in unusual ways.
Chronic hypoglycemia is a serious medical problem, so if you think you might have it, make sure to see a doctor. But it also can't hurt to keep some healthy snacks on hand, and see if tucking into them when you're hungry, rather than waiting to eat, makes any difference with your sweating.
2. Thyroid Problem
If you have constantly damp armpits — in all weather — it might point to thyroid issues, particularly an overactive thyroid or hyperthyroidism. One of your thyroid gland's jobs is to release a hormone that controls how the body uses its energy stores; it also regulates its sensitivity to other hormones it comes into contact with. Being constantly sweaty is just the tip of the iceberg when it come to the side effects of hyperthyroidism — having an overactive thyroid can lead to serious problems, like osteoporosis and even heart problems. So if you're experiencing other symptoms of hyperthyroidism, like fatigue, sudden weight loss, difficulty sleeping or brittle hair, see a doctor ASAP — and don't worry, hyperthyroidism can be controlled through medication.
3. Medication Side Effects
Countless prescriptions — including anti-depressants, blood pressure pills, some cold and flu remedies, medicines for dry mouth — include sweating as a side effect. "There are literally dozens and dozens of common medications" that can cause sweating, Desai Solomon says. "If you have noticed yourself sweating more and are on a new medication, see if increased sweating is listed as a side effect." Many doctors report that medication-induced sweating primarily happens at night, when you're wrapped in a blanket and trying to get warm. However, the cold perspiration can happen during the day as well.
"Cold sweats can be a symptom of panic attacks, social anxiety, and generalized anxiety," Desai Solomon says. "Individuals who experience cold sweats, along with increasing and, at times, overwhelming levels of anxiety, should see a specialist to explore treatment options."
The reason anxiety — whether it's chronic or your pre-date jitters — can cause sweating has to do with your stress hormones. "When activated, those hormones cause your body temperature and heart rate to increase slightly. This sends a message to your sweat glands telling them it's time to produce sweat to cool your body off a bit," Dr. Desai Solomon says.
Relaxation and exercise, such as yoga, are good ways to combat this; they both prevent overproduction of adrenaline-inducing hormones. It is also suggested you stay away from caffeine and monitor how much sugar you consume in a day, as they both raise the blood pressure and produce adrenaline, which results in more glistening.
About 3% of the American population lives with a condition called hyperhidrosis. If you're sweating excessively and regularly on your face, palms, underarms or feet, you should check in with a medical professional and see if you fall into that category. People with hyperhidrosis lose four or five times as much sweat (that's four or five liters!) in a day as the average person, so it's important you find a way to retain more fluids. "If you are struggling with excessive sweating without exerting yourself or at rest, you should take notice," dermapathologist Dr. Gretchen Frieling, MD, tells Bustle. "Consult your medical provider or dermatologist to determine if you indeed have a diagnosis of hyperhidrosis."
There's also a cold-induced sweating disorder called Crisponi syndrome. It's rare and it's believed to be caused by a mutation of the CRLF1 gene. This results in abnormalities in the nervous system, hence the unusual sweating patterns.
If you're concerned about a new pattern of sweating, or really any other changes in your body, take note of your symptoms and talk to your doctor. "Keep a sweat journal. Learn what is triggering your sweating," Frieling suggests. Wearing breathable clothing and other body cooling mechanisms can also help. Above all, don't fret — between your keen powers of observation and your doctor, you can figure out what's causing your sweating and get on top of it, soon.
This post was originally published on August 4, 2015. It was updated on June 21, 2019.