Alcohol and cold weather

Why you have to be extra careful if you're out drinking alcohol in freezing temperatures.

The cold weather is definitely setting in again, but that doesn’t mean social lives have ground to a halt. However, if your destination is the pub or a club and you’re drinking alcohol, it’s important that you take extra care in the cold.

Alcohol and warmth: the big misconception

Alcohol can make you think that you’re warm. But the balmy glow and red cheeks that come with a drink are deceptive.

“When you drink, it dilates the peripheral blood vessels near your skin, which means more blood – and heat – flows to these vessels,” says Professor Colin Drummond, head of the Section of Alcohol Research at King’s College London. “That takes blood and heat away from the core of your body. So while it feels like you’re warm because your skin is warm, your vital organs aren’t as warm as you might think they are.

“If you then go out in the cold after drinking, because you’ve got a lot of heat on the periphery of your body, you can lose heat very easily and quickly. And that can be dangerous.” 

The dangers

When you’ve been drinking heavily and then venture out into arctic conditions, the faulty internal thermometer coupled with the dulling of senses and bravado that alcohol can create, can spell trouble.

“Drinking too much leads to bad decisions,” says Prof Drummond. “If you drunkenly decide to walk home across a snowy field instead of getting a taxi, you’re putting yourself at risk. Hypothermia can take hold quickly and can even lead to death.”

Professor Malcolm Woollard is the chair of the British Paramedic Association. He says: “A huge proportion of emergency calls that our paramedics deal with are to do with alcohol. Sometimes – and especially when temperatures are low – we do treat people who have drank too much, perhaps missed the last bus home, passed out outside and ended up with hypothermia.”

He continues: “Then, of course, there are the people we treat that have been drinking and then slipped on ice or snow and hurt themselves. Alcohol and cold temperatures are a lethal combination.”

Luckily, it isn’t difficult to make sure you stay safe. Staying within the lower risk guidelines will go a long way to avoiding cold-related dangers. Knowing how you’re getting home, sticking with friends and wearing warm clothes will also help to ensure you have a safe night out. 

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Page updated: October 2014