Posted November 11, 2015
Fall is coming to an end and colder temperatures are starting to set in. Health officials and practitioners warn that harsher weather only further complicates staying safe while drinking.
The common myth is that alcohol keeps your body warm in cold weather. Alcohol affects the body in a number ways including slurred speech, distorted vision and impaired judgment, but increasing the body’s temperature is not one of those side effects.
According to MayoClinic.org, alcohol actually makes the body more susceptible to hypothermia. Alcohol makes the blood vessels near the surface of the skin expand, which in cold weather causes heat to escape faster from the skin than it would without the presence alcohol. Also, alcohol diminishes the body’s ability to shiver, which is a natural mechanism to warm ourselves.
UW-River Falls Health Education Coordinator Keven Syverson says drinking may create the illusion that a person is feeling warmer than they actually are.
“So you feel warmer for a bit, but then you soon get colder,” Syverson said. “That fake feeling, that myth of feeling warmer, but actually you do get colder — faster.”
This feeling can a hazard to people venturing home in cold Wisconsin winters who may not realize the dangers surrounding this sensation. Jeff Rixmann, director of River Falls Emergency Medical Services, said this can be dangerous.
“When people get intoxicated,” Rixmann said, “they think they’re feeling warmer but they’re not, and then they go outside, and they might not wear a jacket or they may pass out in the cold, and that’s where you find them, extremely hypothermic. And we see that all the time.”
Syverson added, “You don’t have as much blood in the core of your body. But it feels like you’re warm because your skin is warm, but your vital organs are not as warm, because the heat is going away. So it might too late, before you really realize that you’re cold.”
Paramedic Garrett Gill said the River Falls EMS runs across quite a few hypothermic patients during the late night into early morning hours, with a reasonable chance alcohol was involved.
“The alcohol is a depressant, and it just slows you down, you may have that sense of well-being but it’s not.”
Gill and Rixmann both said utilizing the buddy system can eliminate a lot of the cases they see, mentioning specifically the tragedy earlier this year with the death of UW-River Falls student Robert “Bobby” Sontag, a 20-year dairy science major who got separated from his friends after a night of drinking and never returned home.
Syverson says drinking alcohol, even when it is not cold out, can still be unsafe. It’s important to always use caution when drinking, no matter what temperature it is outside.
“The overconsumption of alcohol is really what leads to many of the problems,” he said. “Over-drinking in any weather is not a good idea. If you’re out there by yourself, and you’re in that state where you dont know what’s going on, it’s hard to function, so it’s trying to prevent getting to that state.”
The best way to prevent hypothermia, especially while drinking, is to dress properly for the conditions.
“It’s that misperception that I’m warm enough, I can walk back fine and not need any jacket,” Syverson said. “If anything it’s just not dressing properly, that would be one of the biggest things I see.”