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What Does it Mean to Break out in a "Cold Sweat"?

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  • Written By: Erin J. Hill
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 29 July 2014
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The phrase “break out in a cold sweat” generally means that one is scared, nervous, anxious, or terrified. More literally, it refers to sweating which occurs due to some factor other than increased body heat or physical exertion. This can be due to any of the aforementioned reasons, or due to illness of some sort.

To “break out in a cold sweat” can be taken both literally and figuratively. Sometimes when one becomes very frightened or nervous, sweating can occur. Other times this phrase is used as a turn of speech in order to imply that someone was feeling these emotions, whether or not a physical sweating response occurred. Symptoms often occur alongside sweating, including rapid heart rate, tremor, anxiety, dizziness, and sometimes fainting.

Most commonly, the phrase is used figuratively rather than literally. When one says that he or she broke out in a cold sweat, it is generally only meant to imply that the person was scared, anxious, frightened, or nervous. An actual sweat does not generally occur unless these feelings are prolonged. It is also usually meant to relate to dread or anticipation of an upcoming unpleasant event rather than a sudden and unexpected fright. The cold sweat occurs while the person is waiting for the threat or perceived threat to arrive.

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Feeling scared or nervous may also cause a literal feeling of heat, combined with rapid heart rhythms which may lead to sweating. This is one possible explanation of where the phrase originated. In a more literal sense, a high fever may also lead to the feeling of breaking out in a sweat because the internal temperature is overheated, but the skin may feel chilled or cold.

A cold sweat may also include any unexplained sweating which occurs when the temperature does not warrant it. This can be caused by glandular conditions within the body, although sometimes a cause is never found. Those who find themselves sweating more than most should consult a doctor.

Sometimes when a person breaks out in a cold sweat, it can be a sign of a serious and life threatening condition. For instance, it is not uncommon for heart attack victims to sweat profusely during the episode. Medical attention should be sought right away if sweating occurs along with shortness of breath, chest pain, tightness in the chest, or any other troublesome symptoms.

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anon327595
Post 6

Andee, I also react the same as you -- probably more so. If I know a situation coming up may be challenging and can expect it, such as and interview for a prestigious job, my PCP gives me a pill that works immediately but only for a few hours. I end up staying composed for a short time.

I have been advised to do breathing exercises but it really only works when I have my therapist leading me. I hope to be able to do it myself soon. Practice makes perfect, right? Best of luck.

LisaLou
Post 5

@andee-- When I find myself in a situation like this, I try to remember to take several deep breaths and let the air out very slowly. If I do this several times in a row, I can feel my body start to relax.

There is something about getting more oxygen to your brain that can help calm down your nervous system. When I get overly nervous my palms start to sweat. I don't think I am the only one who has this reaction, but it can be kind of embarrassing sometimes.

andee
Post 4

When I get really nervous or anxious about something I break out in more of a hot sweat than a cold sweat. My heart starts beating rapidly and I can feel myself getting flushed all over.

When this happens there is nothing I can do to stop it. I try to calm myself down and not get so upset, but I usually just have to wait for the event that is causing the stress to pass.

Does anybody else react like this? I would love to hear suggestions about ways to overcome this problem.

myharley
Post 3

@anon293641-- There are many physical reasons why someone would break out into a cold sweat. Has he seen his regular doctor about this? I have used a chiropractor many times for back issues and have a lot of respect for them, but it would also be beneficial for another doctor to check him over as well.

honeybees
Post 2

One of the times I remember breaking out in a cold sweat was when I was acting in a community play. I had a lead part which required a lot of memorization of lines.

Everything went well the first two nights, but on the third night I was on stage and suddenly forgot my lines. My mind just went blank and that is when I felt like I was breaking out in a cold sweat.

I always had a fear of something like this happening and started to panic. Thankfully my line came back to me before it was my turn to speak again. If this hadn't happened, I would have had to just make something up and that would have thrown everybody else off.

anon293641
Post 1

My dad was breaking out in a cold sweat all the time. His neck was aching because he went to the chiropractor. He says he might die. Help?

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