How drinking alcohol makes you vulnerable in cold weather

By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer


When you’re out drinking and enjoying time with family and friends this winter, keep in mind that the effects of alcohol can make your body more vulnerable in extremely low temperatures.

New Year’s Eve is already one of the busiest times for alcohol-related emergency room visits, statistics show.

Adding cold weather exposure into the mix can further exacerbate alcohol-related risks.

A major danger stems from the fact that alcohol can make people feel much warmer than they actually are as they consume drinks at football games or during New Year’s celebrations.

Cocktails - Pexels


“Alcohol may give a false sense of warmth and heat in the body,” said Dr. Jagdish Khubchandani, associate professor of community health at Indiana’s Ball State University.

“This is because alcohol dilates blood vessels, increasing the blood flow to the limbs and [the body’s periphery],” he said.

In reality, the greater blood flow to the limbs, which causes a sensation of warmth, leads to heat loss, resulting in lower core body temperature, Khubchandani said.

Drinking alcohol is often associated with cases of hypothermia, which occurs when a person’s body temperature drops to dangerous levels due to exposure to extreme cold, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Those with heart conditions should be especially cautious.

The false sense of warmth that occurs when drinking in frigid conditions might cause them to underestimate the extra strain that cold weather places on the body, according to the American Heart Association.

Drinking alcohol also impacts the body’s ability to shiver, thus removing one of the ways the body combats exposure to cold weather, according to a study by the United States Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine.

Another danger arises from alcohol’s tendency to impair judgment.

“People feel warm, so they don’t put on gloves, they don’t dress appropriately and then you take that to the extreme, when people drink to a terrible excess, they [can] pass out in the snow outside,” said Dr. Michael Dick, who specializes in emergency medicine at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

Infographic - Tips to drink alcohol safely in cold weather conditions


“You then see the severe cases of hypothermia or frostbite,” he added.

If you’re drinking outside in the frigid air, medical experts advise having a sober friend keep an eye on you to make sure you’re taking precautions to keep warm.

“Maybe it makes sense that if you’re going to be in extreme weather situations that you also have somebody who says, ‘Listen, you need to make sure that you put on your gloves, you need to make sure that you put on your coat, you’re not thinking correctly,'” Dick said.

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Drinking in moderation, being aware of your surroundings and alternating alcoholic beverages with non-alcoholic drinks are also recommended.

“If you have to [drink] alcohol, ensure that you eat a lot of fatty food or carbs before that, and add a vitamin supplement, if possible,” Khubchandani suggested.

Alcohol consumption robs the body of a proper diet as well as vitamins and minerals because it suppresses appetite, he said.

“This can be dangerous, given that cold weather warrants that people consume enough nutritious food and generate enough energy,” Khubchandani said.

Experts also advised wearing appropriate clothing, avoiding icy or very cold drinks and knowing your limit while drinking alcohol.


For more safety and preparedness tips, visit AccuWeather.com/Ready.

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