What exactly are cold chills

chills (Febris undularis)

When you have chills, the muscles all over your body tremble. (Photo by: imagepointfr / Depositphotos)

Quick overview

  • What is chills: During a state of fever, the muscles involuntarily contract as the body perceives the room temperature as cold due to the fever.
  • Symptoms: Slight to severe tremors, chattering teeth and a feeling of coldness are common.
  • Causes: Chills occur during attacks of fever, sunstroke, heat strokes, but also pneumonia and other flu-like infections.
  • Treatment: Chills usually go away on their own after you help the body to keep warm with tea, warm blankets, or hot water bottles. In the event of sunstroke and heat strokes, however, it is important to cool the body! Cold compresses and ice cubes help here.
  • Possible complications: It is important to determine the cause of the chills. In the case of a fever, the body must not be cooled any further and in the case of heat stroke it is bad to continue heating the person.
  • Prevention: Chills are a side effect and will go away once the root cause is addressed.

What is chills?

The chills develop all over the body occurring tremors of the muscles. People typically feel cold even though they have a fever and are wrapped in lots of warm blankets. The feeling of cold stems from the fact that the target value for the body temperature has been increased by molecules of the body's own immune response, so that normal room temperature is perceived as cold.

The rapid, involuntary contraction of the muscles occurs because the muscle contraction generates heat, which helps to achieve the new setpoint for the body temperature. The resulting fever helps the immune system fight off pathogens.

Chills typically occur in few minutes long bursts in which muscle tension and relaxation alternate in a fraction of a second. The tremor with hypothermia is similar to the tremor with chills and has the same goal, namely to increase the body temperature.

Cause of chills

Infectious diseases as a cause

Probably the most common cause of chills in this country Infectious diseases like flu infections. When infected, the chills are usually accompanied by a fever. The body releases cytokines as a defense reaction to the bacteria invading the body; these are molecules that are responsible for the immune response.

Some of these cytokines are fever-producing; They reach the brain via the bloodstream, where they raise the body temperature, which is around 37 ° C in a healthy state. In order to be able to react with a fever, the body has to produce more heat; this happens, among other things, through the muscle contractions of the chills.

Pneumonia, pelvic inflammation or scarlet fever as the cause

In addition to flu-like infections and the flu, chills can also occur with pneumonia, kidney infections or scarlet fever.

Heat stroke as the cause

Chills can also be a symptom of heat stroke or sunstroke.

Malaria or yellow fever

When traveling to tropical countries, illnesses with chills can occur. These include malaria and yellow fever. If you get chills after returning from traveling to tropical countries, it is advisable to have the exact cause clarified, as various tropical diseases that require treatment can be the cause.

Symptoms of chills

The chills are a symptom of an underlying disease, so there are no symptoms of the chills in the strict sense of the word, only Concomitant symptoms. Chills are usually accompanied by a fever, but can also occur without an underlying febrile reaction.

Particularly strong from those typical of the chills Muscle contractions the muscles of the thighs, the back muscles and the masticatory muscles are affected. If the masticatory muscles contract in an uncontrolled manner, the typical occurrence occurs Chattering teeth.

Characteristic is the lack of control over the tremor on the part of those affected. Since the many muscle contractions within a short period of time mean an enormous effort for the body, it is often too intense after a few minutes of chills sleepiness. Most of those affected fall asleep immediately after a flare-up of chills.

Other characteristic accompanying symptoms are strong Headache and pain in the limbsthat are also typical for flu-like infections. Any other accompanying symptoms of chills depend on the underlying disease and can vary widely.

Examinations and diagnosis

Chills usually accompany a cold or flu. (Photo by: Subbotina / Depositphotos)

In most cases, chills are a symptom of a harmless flu-like infection; however, it is important to find the exact cause in order to rule out other underlying diseases.

Patient discussion

Therefore, as part of the diagnosis, the attending physician first takes an anamnesis in which he records important key data, such as the onset of the chills and possible other complaints. The question of recent trips to tropical countries is particularly relevant when talking to the patient, because this can indicate possible tropical diseases as the cause of the chills.


After the interview, the doctor will listen to the patient in order to determine whether there is pneumonia. The doctor also scans the lymph nodes to rule out tonsillitis as the cause. In the majority of cases, the history and physical examination can help make the diagnosis.

blood sample

Ideally, the doctor will also take a blood sample in order to be able to precisely determine the pathogen, which means that antibiotics can be administered in a more targeted manner. Otherwise, the doctor will prescribe a broad spectrum antibiotic that is effective against a variety of types of bacteria.

Further investigations

If the doctor cannot find an infection, other tests will need to be done. Such tests may include chest x-rays, urine tests, or an ultrasound of the kidneys. In terms of differential diagnosis, it must be noted that other diseases can also show symptoms similar to chills. If no cause for the chills can be found, an overactive thyroid or strong psychological excitement could also cause the symptoms.

Treatment, therapy and possible complications

Not all chills require medical attention. If it is a simple cold that leads to a few chills, it is usually enough Home remedies like teas. It is particularly important that the person's body is kept warm so that the fever can be sweated out; this procedure is known as a sweat cure.

Cold compresses

If the chills occur as a result of a Sunstroke or Heat stroke on, cold compresses around the calves are particularly effective at cooling the body. In addition, the person concerned should drink plenty of fluids, if possible in the form of herbal teas or diluted fruit juices, so that there are no circulatory problems.


If the chills last for several days, a doctor should be consulted. If the cause of the persistent chills is an illness caused by bacteria, the doctor will usually prescribe antibiotics, which should take effect within the first two days.


Complications associated with treating chills occur when the underlying cause cannot be correctly determined.

For example, a tropical disease brought in from vacation can be overlooked, which ultimately leads to worsening of symptoms and delays treatment.

Since chills can have many causes, it is important to understand the specific cause and treat accordingly.

So if there is an underlying disease that has chills as an accompanying symptom, the underlying disease must of course first be treated before the accompanying symptoms can disappear.

However, in most cases, chills can be treated with home remedies. If necessary, drugs such as aspirin can also be used, as these have an antipyretic effect.

Prevention and what I can do myself

Since chills are a symptom of an underlying disease, the disease must be prevented to prevent the chills from occurring. There are therefore actually no prophylactic measures to prevent chills.

However, since in most cases a flu-like infection is the cause of the chills, it is recommended Strengthen the immune system. This effect can be achieved through a healthy diet, adequate hydration, regular exercise and avoidance of stress.

Measures to toughen up the body can also be very effective in preventing chills and the associated primary diseases. These include, for example, cold-warm alternating baths, which stimulate the circulation and strengthen the immune system.

Also, before traveling to tropical countries, the risk of developing various tropical diseases should be weighed and, if necessary, precautionary measures, such as malaria prophylaxis, should be taken. The best prevention to avoid chills, however, is a healthy lifestyle, which strengthens the immune system and can fight pathogens particularly effectively.

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Author: FitundGesund editorial team
Information about the author: Medical editors and journalists
Created on: 06.11.2009
Revised on: 31.07.2020