Goosebumps occur when the arrector pili contract. These tiny muscles are attached to each hair on the body. The contractions cause a depression in the skin that pushes the hair upright and makes the surrounding skin protrude. A lot of things can cause this reaction, some benign and others more serious.
One of the most common causes of goosebumps is cold. In animals, the contraction of the arrector pili raises the fur or feathers, increasing the insulation around the body and allowing the animal to retain heat. Experts think that in humans, goosebumps are a remnant of a similar ancient thermoregulatory response that remained throughout human evolution.
Another common goosebumps cause is intense emotion, commonly joy or fear. Research suggests that the autonomic nervous system is linked to human emotion, and strong feelings can cause chills and goosebumps. Things like seeing great natural beauty, listening to music, touching a loved one, hearing frightening noises in the dark, or watching scary movies all elicit strong emotional responses, and, sometimes, goosebumps.
Fever can stimulate chills and goosebumps and may or may not be serious; while fevers are usually a sign of illness, but they are not always a cause for concern. Generally, fevers go away within a few days as the body fights off the infection. Fevers over 103 F are serious in adults.
Some medications can cause goosebumps. Serotonin syndrome occurs when high levels of serotonin accumulate from taking selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs, drugs commonly prescribed to treat depression. In addition to goosebumps, people with this condition experience confusion, rapid heart rate, sweating, and muscle rigidity. Serotonin syndrome is most likely to occur when a new drug is taken, or the dosage is increased.
Goosebumps are one of the many symptoms of opioid withdrawal. The effects vary depending on the drug and length of use and may include anxiety, mood disturbances, vomiting, diarrhea, rapid heart rate, and trouble sleeping. To reduce or eliminate withdrawal symptoms, people on opioid medications should gradually reduce their use under the guidance of a physician.
Some types of seizures, specifically focal seizures, also cause goosebumps. Focal seizures start in one part of the brain, and if they affect the area responsible for involuntary movement, goosebumps can appear along with other symptoms, such as chills, palpitations, headache, and nausea.
Another more serious cause of goosebumps is autonomic dysreflexia, an abnormal overreaction of the autonomic nervous system. Many things can cause this condition, including Guillain-Barré syndrome, head trauma, spinal cord injuries, and brain bleeds. If this occurs, goosebumps may appear alongside symptoms like high blood pressure, sweating, muscle spasms, and skin changes.
Goosebumps also occur after death. This is often referred to as postmortem goosebumps. When a person dies, adenosine triphosphate (ADT) depletes, and the muscles freeze, a process known as rigor mortis. The arrector pili muscles that cause goosebumps also go through rigor morits. This process begins as soon as two hours after death and is considered normal.
One study indicates that some people can make themselves get goosebumps without an identified cause. Those capable of doing so explain eliciting the reaction by tightening certain muscles, concentrating on a specific part of the body, or merely thinking about a specific feeling or emotion. This voluntary cause of goosebumps has not been thoroughly studied.
Keratosis pilaris is not considered a cause of goosebumps, but it is often confused with them. This harmless skin condition causes rough, dry patches of small bumps, commonly on the upper arms. The bumps do not hurt or itch and are considered normal. There is no cure or prevention, and it usually clears up on its own by age 30.
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