Formula Medical Group
Apple Valley, CA

James Krider, MD

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Clammy skin

Unless you have just come in from the cold, your skin should be warm and dry. But in the presence of many illnesses — some serious and others minor — the skin secretes excess perspiration and, as a result, feels cool and damp to the touch. Psychological stress and anxiety also provoke physiologic changes that result in perspiration and clamminess. Pallor, or lack of normal skin color, often accompanies cold, clammy skin. Depending on the cause, a number of other symptoms may be present as well.

Causes of clammy skin

Acute gastritis
Acute gastritis is irritation, inflammation, erosion, or infection of the mucous lining of the stomach. Its onset is usually sudden and violent, but it lasts only a short time. The least serious form, acute simple gastritis, is most often due to excessive use of alcohol, aspirin, or certain other drugs. Spicy food may also bring on an attack, which may be marked by abdominal pain and cramps, an acid taste in the mouth, and nausea and vomiting. Acute erosive gastritis is a medical emergency caused by swallowing a poisonous substance. It produces severe stomach pain, rapid pulse, and cold, clammy skin, along with difficulty swallowing, excessive thirst, and vomiting of blood. This condition requires immediate hospitalization for stomach pumping and administration of the proper antidote.

This emotional disorder, characterized by unreasonable fears and feelings of impending doom, triggers a number of physical symptoms, including heart palpitations, indigestion, dry mouth, and clammy skin. Medication and behavior therapy, in which the anxious person is gradually exposed to

Pallor and chills often accompany clammy skin.

Clammy skin accompanied by a fast, weak pulse may indicate shock.

Clammy skin accompanied by a fast, weak pulse may indicate shock.

frightening situations in order to extinguish the fear response, can usually control anxiety.

Heat exhaustion
This condition, which is less serious than sunstroke, is the most common heat-related illness. It is brought on by overexposure to high temperatures, especially when heat is accompanied by high humidity. Heat exhaustion usually occurs in people who are expending a great deal of energy in these weather conditions; athletes and outdoor laborers are prime candidates. People with heat exhaustion sweat profusely, and their skin becomes pale and clammy, but neither the pulse rate nor body temperature are dramatically elevated. Faintness, dizziness, poor coordination, thirst, and nausea and vomiting may also develop.

When the level of glucose (a type of sugar) in the blood becomes abnormally low, the resulting symptoms include faintness, dizziness, weakness, clammy skin, hunger, nervousness, irritability, and mood swings. Low blood sugar is due to an excessive production of insulin by the pancreas. It can also be brought on by an overdose of insulin in peo­ple who have diabetes. An insulin overdose and the resulting symptoms may be life threatening.

Shock occurs when blood pressure is too low to maintain the body's vital functions. Its symptoms include pale, moist, and sweaty skin; cold hands and feet; a fast, weak pulse; anxiety and a sense of impending doom; disorientation or confusion; shortness of breath and rapid breathing; and lack of urination. Shock may occur due to sudden loss of blood from injury or an internal disorder such as a bleeding ulcer or a ruptured

ectopic pregnancy. It may also be the result of fluid loss, as in severe burns, or of certain heart conditions including heart attack.

Advice about clammy skin

  • Change your exercise routine in hot, humid weather. Work out indoors, preferably in an air conditioned room. If you must be outdoors, exercise either early in the morning or at dusk.
  • If you work outside in the heat, wear a wide-brimmed hat and loose cotton clothing. Take periodic breaks in the shade, and drink at least 8 glasses of water per day.
  • Know the early warning signals of heat exhaustion: vertigo, sudden weakness, nausea, dimming or blurred vision, and mild muscle cramps. If you are working or lying in the sun, move indoors or to a shady spot as soon as you experience any of these symptoms, and slowly drink one or more glasses of water.
  • Avoid excessive alcohol intake.
  • If you control your diabetes with insulin injections and you experience symptoms of an overdose, immediately eat a food that provides sugar, such as hard candy or a sugar cube. Then get medical help at once.
  • If you observe someone displaying signs of shock, call for medical help immediately. In the meantime, keep the person lying down with legs elevated. Cover the person for warmth, and stop external bleeding by applying pressure. Make sure the airway is open to allow breathing. If breathing stops, give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Administer cardiopul­ monary resuscitation (CPR) if both breathing and pulse stop.
This article was last reviewed November 13, 2005 by Dr. James Krider.
Reproduced in part with permission of Home Health Handbook.
Diabetes, type 1
Gastritis, acute
Heat exhausation


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