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Alcohol Use for Keeping Warm in Cold Weather

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Contrary to popular opinion, using alcohol in cold weather does not keep you warm. With the elderly there is the added risk that the temperature-regulating mechanisms may be impaired due to age, disease and chronic medication. Consuming alcohol in an attempt to keep warm can therefore be disastrous. Although alcohol makes the skin feel warm and appear red, it is actually worsening the situation if you are trying to retain heat in cold climates. Alcohol use can expedite heat loss and even contribute to hypothermia eventually progressing to serious complications and even death if appropriate measures are not instituted rapidly. Seniors in particular need to be aware of the dangers of using alcohol in trying to keep warm and should practice moderation with alcohol use in cold climates.

How does alcohol cause heat loss?

The superficial blood vessels in the skin are the reason that the skin has its reddish color. When the blood vessels open wider (dilate) more blood flows through it and the skin appears redder. Narrowing of these blood vessels (constriction) reduces blood flow though it and the skin appears paler. While melanin is the pigment that gives the skin its natural color, blood flow through the skin also contributes to complexion.

Apart from the color of the skin, heat is also retained or dissipated by the narrowing and widening of the skin blood vessels respectively. This is an important way in which the body regulates the internal temperature. If the core body temperature is rising, the skin blood vessels widen and heat is passed out into the environment. Conversely, when the body temperature is dropping the skin blood vessels narrow and heat is retained.

Alcohol causes vasodilation of these skin blood vessels in a manner that does not correlate with temperature regulation. In other words, at a time when the body may need to be retaining heat and the skin blood vessels should be narrowing, alcohol causes it to widen. Body heat is then dissipated into the environment. The degree to which heat is lost abnormally into the environment depends on the amount of alcohol consumption and the body’s thermoregulatory mechanisms taking effect to minimize heat loss.

Heat Loss Risk in the Elderly

The elderly are at a greater risk of developing hypothermia as their mechanisms to regulate the temperature may be affected for several reasons. Firstly there may be age-related impairment of the thermoregulatory centers. This is a natural occurrence with age and is usually not so severe where the body is unable to prevent major changes in the internal temperature. Then there are diseases and even medication that can hamper the way the body controls its temperature. These factors can cause a severe impairment of body temperature regulation.

Adding alcohol into the mix just makes the situation worse. Seniors living in cold climates particularly during winter are therefore at the greatest risk. Apart from heat loss from the skin, alcohol has a depressant action and can make a person sleepy. Less physical activity also reduces energy utilization and heat production while heat is being lost through the skin. More heat is lost and less heat is produced. Having alcoholic drinks to keep warm, particularly when outdoors in the cold and with insufficient insulating clothing can have severe consequences. Depending on the severity, it can even lead to death.


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