When it's cold outside, alcohol might feel like a way to fend off the winter chill, but health care experts warn alcohol and cold weather can be a bad combination if you’re not careful.
As an associate chief of emergency services at Parkland Hospital System, Dr. Gilberto Salazar has seen the results all too often.
"What I hear most often is 'Well, you know, I drink a little bit to keep myself warm and to celebrate.' And that’s what gets people in trouble a little bit – the combination of alcohol and the cold weather."
Salazar, who's also an assistant professor of emergency medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center, says that cozy warm feeling you get from drinking is misleading because the alcohol actually draws all that heat from the core of your body, making you colder than you realize.
That “warm feeling” when you drink: Alcohol dilates your little blood vessels at the surface of the skin, and so that gives you a nice, cozy, warm feeling. But essentially what you’re doing is drawing all that heat from the core of your body out onto the surface of your body — so, you’re really losing body heat.
It's very misleading: When alcohol levels take away your ability to understand what’s happening, you may not understand that you’re getting very cold. And that gets people in trouble, especially if they’re out and about. We see a lot of unfortunate patients every year who’ve been doing some drinking. They go outside or have been partying outside, and they get very cold and very sick.
Even hypothermia is possible: Yes, you can get really terrible hypothermia. We’ve had unfortunate cases of people passing out when they’re outside drinking and the hypothermia makes their heart extremely sick. These patients come in in very critical condition and their resuscitation can be very, very difficult.
Hospitals see this problem often: Especially in these frigid months, a lot of our patients who may be homeless or do not have access to shelter, are susceptible. Some of them do have a history of substance abuse, and they use alcohol for various purposes. These are some of our most vulnerable patients, and we see them very sick in the emergency department.
- Opt for warm liquids like hot chocolate or coffee.
- Dress in layers and be able to shed off layers, rather than be underdressed and then figure out your core temperature is steadily dropping.
- If you’re going to drink alcohol, especially outdoors, make sure you have a designated person who is not drinking who is able to look out after you.
- How Alcohol Affects the Body in Cold Weather
- The Claim: Drinking Makes You Warmer in Winter
- How drinking alcohol makes you vulnerable in cold weather
Interview responses have been edited for clarity and length. This story was first published in January 2018.