Monday, December 19, 2016

Freezing To Death

It seems like every year, we hear of a young person, usually a college student, who is found dead outside from exposure to the cold. Frequently, if not every time, there is alcohol involved. The person drank too much, tried to walk home, fell or passed out while walking, and lay in the snow until he or she died by freezing to death.

How does that happen?

Often, when you go to college, you have not had the chance to go to a party where there's been drinking involved. You can't have a party with alcohol in your parents' house (we hope!), and unless you know someone else who has his own place, where are you going to go to drink? You're underage to go to a bar, and you may not even have a car to go anywhere independently. This is a drag, you think, but actually it's a good thing: If you don't have the opportunity, you can't get into trouble with it.
There is a reason there is a "legal" age to drink alcohol: when you're too young, you don't know how to handle it. In fact, plenty of people much older don't know how to handle it, either.

Once people graduate from high school and begin college, the game changes in a lot of ways. For many, they will live at the college they attend, whether in a dorm or in off-campus housing. They will be making their own decisions, since there aren't parents hovering around. There will be underage drinking, and there will be first-time drinkers.
Because this is all new and exhilarating, sometimes people will overdo things they have not done before. They may drink more than they ought to because they don't know how it affects them. They've never felt what it's like to be drunk (not to mention the 'hangover' the next day). Alcohol is a poison, or toxin, that our bodies don't need and don't want. We have to get rid of these toxins so the body can return to normal, and the process isn't fun.
 *Did you know that your alcohol level actually rises after you stop drinking?

Without a car, it's typical of  college students to simply walk, or try to walk, to get home or to the next party. Maybe the student doesn't know a lot of people there and feels stupid asking someone to walk with him. Maybe he doesn't think simply walking home is going to be a big deal. The problem is: this person is carrying a lot of poison/alcohol in his system and isn't his usual self. He sets out walking towards his home/dorm/apartment and thinks, I know where I'm going, I'll be fine. I'm doing the right thing by not driving. If I drove I'd be endangering myself and others. He may think: It's cold outside, that will sober me up fast.

Yeah, not really.

So what happens sometimes is that a person will start walking, find himself confused, and stumble and fall, or pass out and fall, or slip and fall in the snow, and not get up. Here is how fast tissues freeze:

This chart shows what the windchill is when you figure the temperature plus the speed of the wind, and how many minutes until you would have frostbite.

Here is what the Mayo Clinic says about alcohol and hypothermia:

"Alcohol and drug use. Alcohol may make your body feel warm inside, but it causes your blood vessels to dilate, or expand, resulting in more rapid heat loss from the surface of your skin. The use of alcohol or recreational drugs can affect your judgment about the need to get inside or wear warm clothes in cold weather conditions. If a person is intoxicated and passes out in cold weather, he or she is likely to develop hypothermia."
Read more about this at their website:

And that's how you can also lose fingers and toes to frostbite: Your body figures you don't absolutely need fingers and toes to live, but you do need your heart, lungs, and internal organs. it shuts off blood supply to the hands and feet and tries its best to keep your organs warm.

At first, your fingers, toes, nose, and ears will feel numb or tingly. A bit later, the skin will turn white, and after that, it will swell, bleed, and develop blisters. It will eventually turn color as the damage presents itself. Frostbite causes irreversible damage to your tissues and blood vessels; it is similar to a burn, ironically. It can go deep into the bones of the tissue as well. If the tissue dies, there may be amputation involved. 

From the National Institutes of Health:
Cold weather can affect your body in different ways. You can get frostbite, which is frozen body tissue. Your body can also lose heat faster than you can produce it. The result is hypothermia, or abnormally low body temperature. It can make you sleepy, confused and clumsy. Because it happens gradually and affects your thinking, you may not realize you need help. That makes it especially dangerous. A body temperature below 95° F is a medical emergency and can lead to death if not treated promptly.

Remember, alcohol is a depressant, that is, it slows down your body including reflexes such as reaction time as well. Notice where it says "hypothermia can make you sleepy, confused, and clumsy." These are the same as signs of having too much to drink. Imagine combining the two, and you can see the danger of drinking and going out into the cold.

If you've been drinking, whether 'binge drinking' or less, and head out into the cold, you have two things working against you.
Another danger in our area is the rivers and lakes we all enjoy. They are fun to play on and in, but are easy to fall into. Let's say you lose your way and wander into the river, break through some thin ice, and can't move well enough to get back out. You may drown, die from alcohol poisoning, or die from exposure to the cold, or some of all three. Maybe you think it's fun to skate in your shoes because you've lost your good judgment....but it turns out the lake you're on isn't really frozen, and you fall in.

So, what can we do to avoid it?
  • First, of course, would be not to drink at a party, or to have one drink and then stop. It's a bad idea for anyone to take in too much at any time. It helps a bit to eat some food to help the alcohol take longer to process in your body, but it won't prevent you from being drunk.
  • Consider having one drink of alcohol and then only soda the rest of the evening.
  • Of course, you should speak up if a friend is getting too carried away. That's easier said than done while everyone is partying, of course.
  • ALWAYS (did I mention always) go with at least one friend. Let another person know where you're going and when you expect to get there. Then call or text when you arrive. A simple "I'm home now" is more than sufficient. If you have 'dropped off'' your friend and you will be continuing to your home, make sure your friend goes into his building, before you walk away.
  • When you arrive at your destination, you should also call or text back that you have safely arrived.
  • Third, watch for someone that's in trouble. Offer to be his/her walking buddy. If you need to, ask around at the party for people to give a dollar or two-take up a collection-and call a taxi to take the person home. 

New Year's Eve will mean free transportation on some Metro Transit buses and light rail in Minneapolis; they may have a route that would serve you. Check it out:

Or, try a Sobercab service. They charge a fee but some are not too high:

Alternative taxis to get home safely-These are not free:

If you are not in the Twin Cities area, try a Google search for a sobercab company. Better to pay a fee than to lose your life.

We just want you to be safe this winter. We want you to get home after a party, warm up, and live to enjoy your life.

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