When it comes to alcohol in cold weather, don’t be fooled by the warm flush of your cheeks and pleasant toasty feeling. Though the commonly held belief is that alcohol keeps you warm in colder temperatures, this is a myth that could turn into tragedy in extreme circumstances. Whether you’re walking to the nearby bar for an after-work drink or hitting the slopes for some weekend skiing, a little knowledge about the dangers of alcohol and low temperatures could prevent you from making a regrettable decision, possibly even saving your life.

Earlier this winter, a young Minnesota college student had all of her fingertips, her thumbs, and much of her toes amputated after spending a night on a neighbor’s porch in sub-zero temperatures.
The young woman spent the previous evening playing drinking games with friends – consuming at least ten shots of tequila – before being dropped off at home. Unfortunately, no one waited to see that she actually got into her house. She was not wearing gloves during the nine hours she spent outside. She was found unconscious the next morning and treated for hypothermia and severe frostbite.
On January 7th, a 32-year old Lakeview woman was found outside. The medical examiner gave the cause of death as “hypothermia complicated by acute alcohol intoxication.” Again, the woman spent the night outside in temperatures as low as 15 below zero.

Acting as a vasodilator, alcohol causes the blood vessels just below your skin’s surface to dilate, creating a false sensation of warmth, stealing heat from your vital organs and decreasing your overall core temperature. This effect is exacerbated when the body is exposed to cold temperatures.

Normally, the body protects itself against the cold by constricting those same blood vessels, allowing more blood to be used to maintain a warm core temperature. Because alcohol causes the blood to concentrate close to the body’s surface, external temperatures can quickly sap the body of its heat, further decreasing your core temperature, but not before giving you that false feeling of warmth. Add in the bit of bravado, numbed senses and poor decision making that alcohol creates and you’ve got a recipe for hypothermia.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)defines Hypothermia as “a core body temperature of less than 95ºF (or 35ºC)” – basically, below the required temperature for normal organ function and metabolism.
Warning signs of hypothermia include shivering, exhaustion, disorientation, confusion, stumbling, general lack of coordination, memory loss, slurred speech, lack of concern over one’s situation, decreased ability to make decisions, shallow respiration, weak pulse, drowsiness, and drifting toward unconsciousness
Because of their impaired state of consciousness, a person suffering from hypothermia may not recognize what is happening to them, and therefore may not take the measures necessary to protect themselves.

Avoid drinking outdoors in the cold weather. Some skiers carry a bota bag filled with wine out on the slopes (a bad idea for many reasons). Hunters, too, are known to drink in the snowy woods. Consider enjoying a beverage or two after these activities, when you’re safely indoors and can warm up by a fire.
Decide beforehand how you will get home. Unless you live in the same block as the bar or restaurant you will be drinking at, it’s best to get a ride from a designated driver or take a taxi home – leave the walking for the spring.
Use the buddy system. If you are going to be outside after consuming alcohol, make sure you take someone with you. In most hypothermia fatality cases, the person is alone.
Dress appropriately in multiple layers including gloves, boots, thick socks, a hat or hood, warm coat, and scarf. Make sure the outer layer of clothing is waterproof.
Know the signs of hypothermia so you can watch for them in yourself and others.
Stay hydrated, by drinking plenty of water.
If you see someone you think may be suffering from hypothermia, call 911 immediately (every minute counts). If you can, bring the person indoors, remove all their wet clothes and cover them in blankets until a medical response team arrives.