One of the most persistent myths, and potentially deadly ones, has it that if you are out in the cold and need to warm up fast, drink some brandy, booze, vodka or some kind of alcoholic beverage. This is not only exceedingly bad advice, it can be deadly. People die every year from the mixture of drinking alcohol and going out into the cold or while they are out in the cold. It is important to understand why.
Alcohol’s ‘feeling of warmth’
If you are even an occasional drinker, you might have noticed that when you have an alcoholic drink when it is cool, you quickly get a feeling of warmth. This isn’t really an illusion, but it is a major reason that the practice is so dangerous.
One of the effects alcohol has on the body is to relax the blood vessels and capillaries, including those near the surface of the skin. This causes an increase in blood flow. The increase in the flow of blood near the surface of the skin means that there is an increase in the body temperature there, which heat receptors in the skin easily detect. You ‘feel’ warmer.
The problem is that the increase in blood flow near the surface of the skin, which is where the effects of cold temperatures are likeliest to be felt, means that more blood is cooling because of those cold temperatures. The net result is that the core body temperatures; that surrounding the vital organs, decreases. All the while the body is trying vainly to increase the core temperature, to the extent that a person might end up sweating, though the temperature is far below freezing. This is extremely dangerous. Why? In a word: Hypothermia.
The normal body temperature of a human being is about 98.6 F, give or take a degree. When the body temperature starts dropping below this, there are many physiological body changes that take place, but it is easiest to simply say that non-vital organs begin to shut down.
Hands and feet, then arms and legs often begin to feel cold because the body starts to close down blood flow to those areas. This is done to maintain a sufficient core temperature to allow the vital organs to survive.
If the hypothermia continues, blood flow to the extremities can completely cease, leading to frostbite and death of tissue. All of this is the body’s natural attempt to maintain the core temperature.
It is possible to become hypothermic at any temperature below normal body temperature, but it happens faster the colder the temperatures are surrounding the body. If the temperatures are very low, such as around zero degrees Fahrenheit, hypothermia can occur so fast that a person may not even be aware that it is happening. Hypothermia can lead to death and people every year freeze to death.
Combining cold and alcohol
As already explained, one of the effects of alcohol is to increase blood flow, which ultimately results in a drop in core temperature. The body’s natural response to a drop in core temperature is to start shutting down blood flow to non-essential areas of the body. This speeds up the process of hypothermia.
Alcohol also impairs judgment and slows down reaction time. It doesn’t take much alcohol to do this, either. However, it makes it even less likely that a person will be aware that they are experiencing hypothermia. Thus, they the chances are many times greater that they will freeze to death, as compared with a person who hasn’t had any alcohol to drink.
It also isn’t safe to assume that if you had a few drinks a couple of hours ago, it is safe to go out into the cold. It takes the liver about 24 hours to remove one ounce of alcohol from the body. It makes no difference what form the alcohol is in, either. A shot glass of pure grain alcohol, a 9-ounce glass of wine and a can of beer all contain an ounce of alcohol, on average. This means that even if you had a few glasses of wine three or four hours ago, most of the alcohol is still in your system. Going out into the cold will still have the same effects.
None of this is supposition and none of it is frivolous. Every year people die because they drink alcohol and then go out into the cold. In fact, people die every year because they go out into the cold, start feeling the effects of the temperature and drink alcohol in order to feel warmer because they believe the old myth.
This isn’t meant to be negative for anyone who chooses to drink alcohol. In the US alone, 78% of adults have at least an occasional alcoholic drink. Just be wise about it.
If you value your life, don’t believe the old tale that you can warm up in the cold by drinking alcohol.