How our body responds to the cold when we are under the influence of alcohol

Fantasy: We see it in movies. Fantasy No. I – A woman has been caught by an avalanche, she is freezing, and just as she is about to pass out, a great Saint Bernard arrives with a little barrel of cognac or whiskey hanging from its neck. The woman takes a drink and her life is saved.

Fantasy No. 2 – James Bond comes into a warm cabin, frozen to his bones, after having escaped Goldfinger’s henchmen through an Arctic blizzard. A beautiful woman offers him a stiff drink of gin and tonic, “shaken, not stirred,” and he suddenly recovers and starts off a romantic evening.

So what message is Hollywood sending us? That alcohol is not only safe in the extreme cold, but that in fact it will help us recover from a frozen state. If we believe that, we might as well dress in black and go fight the “Scum of the universe.”

Fact: We see it in real-life: Fact No. 1. A young man comes to Chisasibi for a tournament in January. On the Saturday evening he starts drinking. Later on, he walks to his boarding home. He is so drunk that he stops for a little nap on a snow bank. A few hours later, a passerby finds him and calls the ambulance. His fingers and toes are blue and swollen from frostbite. Later, the skin falls off, but despite all the bandages and medicines, the flesh turns black. He spends several weeks in hospital, enduring painful dressing changes. Finally, Dr. Mutch, the surgeon, reaches the conclusion we all feared. He is transferred to Val d’Or, where several of
his fingers and toes are amputated, cut off.

Fact No. 2. The tragic episode of a young man from Waskaganish, who fell asleep and passed away in the snow. Reports say that he was under the influence of alcohol. Our prayers for him and our condolences for his family and friends.

Why this contradiction between fact and fantasy? It is probably because people have noticed that when they take some alcohol, their face and body feel warm. So people assumed that if they drank more alcohol, they would get even warmer. If they understood why alcohol produces this temporary feeling of warmth, they would realize that alcohol and cold don’t mix.

Why does alcohol make us feel warm at first?

When alcohol enters the body it causes all the arteries and veins near the skin and scalp to open up. As a result, there is more blood going to the skin. This is why the skin gets a reddish tone when drinking. Blood is warm, so the skin warms up. Unfortunately, this is also the way the body loses heat. (Our skin also gets red when we’re very hot and sweating). All this blood loses its heat as it comes close to the cold air around the skin. So even though the person feels warm, the body is losing massive amounts of heat. After a while, the central body temperature starts coming down, and then the drunk person feels cold. A drunken person will freeze a lot faster than a sober person, because they lose heat more quickly.

What other facts make it dangerous to be out in the cold while intoxicated with alcohol?

When alcohol first enters the body, the person feels lively and has a sense of wellbeing, as well as a smell of alcohol on the breath. As the level of alcohol increases in the body, the person becomes moody and irritable (this is when fights happen and there is the risk of being knocked out and left in the snow). Then people become emotional and start laughing or crying excessively. This is a sign that they have lost coordination. If they go out on their skidoo, they may feel like speeding down a hill, but may not have the coordination to stay on the trail. This leads to accidents, some of them fatal. The same applies to driving a road vehicle while intoxicated. As the level of alcohol in the blood goes even higher, people become quiet and withdrawn, their speech is slurred and they have trouble keeping their balance. This is the critical stage in which people can easily trip and fall, but will be unable to stand up and could pass out from the cold. They could also pass out from the high alcohol level in their blood, which is why walking around in the snow while still drinking from a can or bottle can be so dangerous. The body passes out to force the person to stop drinking. When someone passes out from alcohol, it is because the levels in the blood are dangerously high. This is also why we throw up when we drink too much. The body is trying to get rid of excess alcohol.

Now that we know the facts, we can tell Hollywood to quit misinforming us. But even in Hollywood, drinking has gone out of fashion. Thirty years ago, it was common to see scenes with funny drunks, and if people passed out in your party, it meant that it was a good party. Today, Hollywood realizes that a drunk person is not funny, and passing out in parties is just not cool anymore.

If you drink, do it with moderation, stop while you are still happy, designate a sober driver, stay with reliable friends. Some of us cannot stop drinking once we start, so maybe it is time to quit. Talk to one of the many who have been sober for years; they are the best to give you advice on how to quit.

– Dr. Robert Harris, MD