Drinking for warmth may lead to dire consequences

by AnnMary Mathew | 11/8/04 6:00am

Most people would consider the resistance to cold temperatures they feel after drinking an extra benefit of winter alcohol consumption. What they might not know is that drinking in cold weather can be dangerous, as the chances of contracting hypothermia increase after consuming alcohol.

"It's a common myth that alcohol seems to 'warm' one's stomach. But in the end, alcohol can pull out body heat and accelerate the problem of hypothermia," said Gregory Roa of the National Institutes of Health told The Dartmouth.

Alcohol can dilate the blood vessels near the surface of a person's body. That contributes to a person's losing crucial body warmth and to a lowered body temperature. In addition, it can suppress normal defenses against hypothermia such as shivering, which generates heat, and the shifting of blood flow to the brain and other vital organs.

"Drinking in the winter is particularly dangerous because if someone passes out [outside] the consequences can be dire," said College Proctor Harry Kinne.

Kinne pointed to an incident last year where a Champlain College student in Burlington, Vt., fell into a snow bank on the way home from a party and died from hypothermia.

On very cold nights, Safety and Security is especially vigilant in looking for drunk students walking around campus.

"We're glad to pick them up and give them a ride to Dick's House where they can be evaluated," said Kinne, who added that students should not let other students who have been drinking go out alone.

Alcohol and Drug Education program coordinator Ryan Travia also cited situations where students leave parties, become disoriented and hurt themselves by slipping on ice or passing out in a snowbank.

People under the influence of alcohol go into a deeper form of sleep than is normal. In cold weather, if they pass out outside, they can develop hypothermia, according to Dr. Seddon Savage, director of the Dartmouth Center on Addiction, Recovery and Education.

Roa also warned that decision making is the first level of brain functioning affected by alcohol, and thus drinking could affect a person's ability to prepare for cold weather properly. For example, students are less likely to wear jackets or other protective gear after consuming alcohol.

The dangers of drinking in cold weather aren't limited to hypothermia.

"Students might not realize that they are getting frostbite," Kinne said. "It doesn't take too long, and it doesn't need to be that cold for it to set in."

"We encourage everyone to do everything in moderation and look out for each other," he said.

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