Some who play or work in the cold believe a sip of alcohol will help keep them warm. But the Tennessee Department of Health is reminding Tennesseans that drinking alcohol in any quantity can actually expose a person to greater risk of hypothermia, the potentially fatal condition of abnormally low core body temperature.
“When a person drinks alcohol, blood flow to the skin increases, producing a feeling of temporary warmth,” said TDH Chief Medical Officer David Reagan, MD, PhD. “That’s dangerous because the body’s normal reaction to cold is to move blood in the opposite direction, from the skin to our body core, to protect vital organs. The increased blood in the skin after drinking alcohol causes our bodies to lose heat more rapidly, increasing the possibility of life-threatening hypothermia.”
The early symptoms of hypothermia - being confused, sleepy, apathetic, delirious or clumsy - can be mistaken for having consumed too much alcohol. Some people may not recognize what is happening and may not be able to think clearly and seek warm shelter because these changes may occur slowly.
Hypothermia occurs when the body’s core temperature falls below 95 degrees Fahrenheit, just less than the normal 98.6 degrees F for most people. As this happens, a person can slip into a coma and the heart and respiratory system can fail.
“If you suspect someone has hypothermia, proper treatment should begin quickly,” Reagan said. “Severe hypothermia demands professional medical attention, so it’s important to call 911 for help. Mild hypothermia requires fluids to replace those lost as the body tries to warm itself, increased physical activity, dry clothes and food and shelter in a warm place. Drinks with caffeine should be avoided, as they cause the body to lose fluids. Similarly, tobacco products should also not be used, as they cause blood vessels to restrict, increasing the risk of frostbite.”
The Tennessee Department of Health suggests avoiding alcohol, dressing in layers, changing out of wet clothes and limiting time outdoors to avoid hypothermia. Adopting a “buddy” system is also recommended so friends can check on one another often to look for signs of cold weather health problems.
Approximately 800 people die annually in the United States from hypothermia and many more visit emergency rooms to be treated for cold weather-related injuries and illnesses. In 2010, nearly 40 Tennesseans either visited the emergency room or stayed in a hospital due to health problems caused by the mixture of cold and alcohol.