There are many times we brave the cold to be outside. We attend outdoor football and hockey games, ice fish or spend hours on the slopes. In addition to being outside, these have another thing in common: they often involve drinking. And drinking in the cold can increase your risk of hypothermia.

What is hypothermia?

Hypothermia happens when your core body temperature drops dangerously low. It can hurt your organs, affect your body functions and cloud your thinking.

“Whether it’s minus 30 degrees or 30 above zero, you’re at risk of hypothermia,” said Marny Benjamin, MD, emergency medicine physician at Methodist Hospital. “Hypothermia impairs your coordination and thinking. When you combine that with alcohol, it can be really dangerous.”

Drinking and hypothermia

Walking outside in the winter after drinking can increase your chances of hypothermia. It’s harder to notice yourself getting cold when you have alcohol in your system. You may also make riskier decisions because your judgment is impaired. These might include laying down to rest outside or removing clothing.

“It’s strange. But when people are found after suffering or dying from hypothermia, some will have taken off their clothes,” said Dr. Benjamin. “This is called paradoxical undressing. Your brain interprets the extreme cold as feeling hot. But when you take off your clothes, it just causes you to get colder, faster.”

How to stay safe and warm

Dress properly for the weather. Never walk home alone, especially if you’ve had a lot to drink.

“Long walks home are dangerous. This is especially true if your cell phone isn’t charged or you’re alone,” said Dr. Benjamin. “You should never walk home alone at night, in the cold, when you’re intoxicated. It’s a recipe for disaster.”

If you find yourself at risk of hypothermia, find somewhere warm and use your cell phone to call 911.

“This is a perfectly good reason to call the paramedics,” said Dr. Benjamin. “You really just need to get warm.”