What Causes Chills?
Chills, or shivering, are a cause of rapid fluctuations between muscle relaxation and muscle contractions. These contractions of your muscles are a way of your body as it tries to warm itself up when you feel cold. Chills, though, are not always related to fever. Usually, most people think that you experience chills when you have a fever. Sometimes they can precede the onset of fever, especially when a fever is a result of an infection. Other times, chills can occur even without an increase in body temperature.
Depending on the underlying cause, chills may or may not be a serious health issue. We take a look at what causes chills and what it indicates for your health.
What are Chills?
The word “Chills” is used to refer to a feeling of being cold or experiencing cold sensation without there being any apparent cause. You can experience chills with or without a fever. When chills are accompanied by a fever, they can cause shaking or shivering.
Sometimes body chills can be constant, with each episode lasting for as long as half an hour to an hour even. In other cases, you can experience chills that can occur periodically and just last for a couple of minutes.
What Causes Chills?
Exposure to a cold environment is usually the most common reason for why chills occur. Chills can also be a response to a viral or bacterial infection that also causes a fever. Chills are typically associated with these conditions:
- Viral or bacterial gastroenteritis
- Strep throat
- Urinary tract infection (UTI)
How to Treat Chills at Home?
There are some things you can do at home itself to get some comfort and relief from chills, especially if you have a fever as well. Treatment for chills is generally based upon whether you also have a fever along with your chills, and upon the severity of your fever. If you have a mild fever and no other severe symptoms, you do not need to seek medical attention. Just by taking plenty of rest and drinking a lot of fluids you will recover. A mild fever is considered to be a temperature of 38.6oC or 101.4oF.
If you are feeling too chilly, then you can cover yourself up with a light sheet. It is best to avoid using heavy blankets as this will only increase your body temperature. Taking a cool shower or sponging yourself with lukewarm water may also help. Cold water, though, is likely to trigger another episode of chills.
There are also many over-the-counter (OTC) medications available for lowering fever and for fighting chills. These include:
- Ibuprofen (Advil)
- Aspirin (Bayer)
- Acetaminophen (Tylenol)
It is important that you follow the directions on the instruction label of these OTC medications carefully so as to avoid any side effects and complications. Ibuprofen and aspirin will effectively lower your fever and also reduce inflammation. If you are taking acetaminophen, then it will only help lower your fever, but it will not help with the inflammation. Furthermore, acetaminophen can prove to be toxic to the liver if not taken as per the directions. Long-term use of ibuprofen can also cause damage to the stomach and the kidney.
If you notice that even after 48 hours there has been no improvement in your fever and chills, and if you also have any of these symptoms, then you should immediately contact your doctor or head to the emergency room. Warning signs and symptoms to look out for include:
- Stiff neck
- Severe coughing
- Shortness of breath
- Abdominal pain
- Pain during urination
- Frequent urination or lack of urination
- Unusual sensitivity to bright light
- Forceful vomiting
If you are treating a child with fever and chills, then the treatment depends on the age, condition of the fever, and any other accompanying symptoms. If your child has a temperature between 37.8oC (100oF) to 38.9oC (102oF) and they are experiencing discomfort, then you can give them acetaminophen in liquid or tablet form depending on their age. Again, follow the dosage instructions on the medication package.
Do not bundle a child who has a fever and experiencing chills in layers of clothing or heavy blankets as that will only increase the body temperature further. Dress in some lightweight clothing and keep them well hydrated.
Aspirin is not to be given to children under the age of 18 years due to the risk of Reye's syndrome. Reye's syndrome is a rare, but severe condition that can develop in some children upon being given aspirin while they are fighting off a viral infection.
Call the doctor if you notice the following signs and symptoms in your child:
- A fever in a child who is younger than 3 months
- A fever in a child who is between 3 to 6 months of age
- If the child becomes lethargic and irritable
- A fever in a child who is between the age of 6 to 24 months, and the fever lasts for more than one day
- A fever in a child who is between 24 months to 17 years of age and the fever lasts for more than three days and is not responding to any treatment
There are also some medical treatments available for chills. Before prescribing anything though, your doctor will ask you certain questions about your fever and chills, such as:
- How long is each episode of chills last for?
- Do the chills make you feel color do they make you shake as well?
- What is the highest body temperature you recorded which was accompanied by chills?
- Have you experienced chills earlier as well or if this is the first time?
- Did the chills begin suddenly or after exposure to a particular allergen?
- Are you experiencing any other symptoms?
Your doctor will also perform a physical examination and could also prescribe some diagnostic tests to determine whether you have a viral or a bacterial infection that is causing the fever. Some of the diagnostic tests include:
- Sputum culture - this tests the secretions from your lungs and bronchi
- Blood tests including a complete blood count and a blood culture to detect any fungi or bacteria present in the bloodstream
- Chest X-ray to look for tuberculosis, pneumonia, or any other infections
- If you are diagnosed with a bacterial infection, such as pneumonia or strep throat, then your doctor will prescribe an antibiotic.
Outlook for Chills
Chills accompanied by a fever are signs that there is something wrong within your body. If even after home care and OTC treatments, your chills and fever continue to persist, then you should consult a doctor to find out the underlying cause. Make sure to treat your fever as an untreated fever can cause severe dehydration and even give rise to hallucinations. Children between the ages of 6 months to 5 years may also experience fever-induced seizures if their temperature is not brought under control.
In most cases, chills without fever can be treated with home care, modifications in behavior such as your exercise routine, and with a healthy diet. Talk to your doctor if you regularly experience unexplained chills or if you experience chills that are not going away.