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I got drunk and was told I almost died from hypothermia. What does that mean?

I got drunk and ended up in hospital. My friends handled the situation very well by putting me in the recovery position and making sure I stayed conscious and responsive for as long as they could. The one thing that put me at great risk that night was the people looking after me did not know that I was at a very high risk of becoming hypothermic and could’ve died. What is hypothermia and why is it so dangerous, particularly in relation to alcohol?”

Hypothermia is a medical emergency that occurs when your body loses heat faster than it makes it, which results in a low body temperature. When your body temperature becomes very low, your heart and other organs don’t work properly, which can lead to organ failure and eventually, to death. There are many causes of hypothermia, including particular medical conditions, exposure to cold temperatures or falling into water, but one that many people don’t know about is related to drinking alcohol.

Alcohol can cause hypothermia in three main ways. Firstly, although drinking alcohol can make you feel warm, it actually causes your blood vessels to expand and lose heat from your body surface. In addition, the body’s shivering mechanism, which helps keep you warm, is reduced by drinking alcohol.  Lastly, people who have been drinking alcohol are not always able to make the best decisions, so they are less likely to recognise the danger of cold environments. If someone was to pass out in cold weather from drinking alcohol, they are likely to develop hypothermia and become very unwell.

Some symptoms of hypothermia can be the same as being drunk, so be on the lookout for:
  • shivering
  • slurred speech
  • stumbling/lack of coordination
  • slow shallow breathing
  • confusion
  • loss of consciousness

It is important to recognise that drinking alcohol can put you at risk of hypothermia, even if you are conscious. Dress appropriately and be aware of water and cold environments if you are planning a big night out. If someone is drunk, they are at risk of hypothermia, so try to give them some shelter and a warm covering and get help if you need it. If they are conscious, they may resist but be persistent and do your best to keep them warm.

Passing out for any reason is a medical emergency. Call an ambulance immediately and place the person on their side. If they are lying on cold ground they will get cold quicker, so try to roll them onto a blanket or coat. Remove any wet clothing and cover with warm, dry blankets to maintain body temperature and try to protect them from the elements (i.e., rain, wind, etc) as much as you can.

Regardless of the cause, an unconscious person always needs an ambulance. Ensure they are on their side to protect their airway, never leave them alone, keep them warm and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

First published: July 2019

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