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No chill: Drinking and dressing smarter in the Wisconsin winter
The 2016 death of a young woman in Milwaukee who walked out into the freezing Wisconsin weather after a night of drinking underscores the dangers of alcohol consumption in winter.
Alcohol consumption sometimes plays a role in hypothermia-related deaths like this. The Internet is rife with bad advice telling you that you can ward off the winter chill by downing some of your favorite spirits. You may have heard this referred to as a “booze blanket” or a “shroud of spirits.”
To be clear: drinking alcohol does not warm you up. At all.
“Drinking alcohol may make you feel warmer, but it doesn’t actually keep you warm or prevent hypothermia,” says Jenny Rabas, Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drug Coordinator at University Health Services.
Now for the science. Alcohol has a much lower freezing temperature than water. For example, liquors that are 40 percent alcohol freeze at about minus 22 degrees which may lead you to falsely think that alcohol is somehow warmer than ice or snow.
The body’s physiological response to alcohol consumption is a bit complicated, but let’s break it down. Essentially, when you drink, your blood vessels dilate, which moves blood flow to the surface of the skin. This allows the cold outside air to “steal” more heat from your core body temperature. After ingestion, your body may feel warmer, but it actually lowers your core body temperature.
In 2005, researchers found that even one drink can wreak havoc on the body’s ability to maintain its temperature. The body tries to counter alcohol’s warming effects by increasing the rate of sweating, which further decreases your core temperature. Another study by the Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine found that alcohol actually inhibits your ability to shiver, robbing your body of a primary mechanism to create warmth.
“Impaired judgement from alcohol can begin as low as a .05 BAC, so having a plan to bundle up before you start drinking can be a really important part of your night,” says Rabas.
But simply being more aware of alcohol’s effects in cold weather is just one precaution to take. Adequately preparing to venture outside when shuttling between classes or parties is simple and could potentially be a life-saving effort.
Layering up with the proper clothing is the key to staying warm when temperatures dip. We’re not saying you have to emulate Randy’s snowsuit wardrobe from “A Christmas Story,” but several distinct layers each serve their own purpose in warding off the winter chill.
First is the base. This thin layer keeps sweat from sapping your body heat. Next comes the mid layer, which is just your normal outfit. Then comes the insulation, which works to keep your body heat in. This is your main source of warmth and could be a fleece jacket or down vest. Finally, the shell shields you from the whipping wind, snow, or sleet.
Layering is an essential component of surviving the harsh Wisconsin winter. And understanding how your body reacts to that beer or shot of liquor is especially important as sub-zero conditions set in on campus.
“It’s also important to make sure you’re enjoying alcoholic beverages responsibly,” says Rabas. “Low-risk drinking can help prevent negative consequences associated with alcohol and allow you to help someone who may have had too much to drink.”
Written by Ben Vincent, UHS Web and Publications Editor