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Biology

Why alcohol makes you feel warm

Today will be a short post as it is Christmas Eve but I thought this was a topic worthy of the holidays.

Alcohol bottles

When a person drinks alcohol they feel warm. This is why you often see characters in movies have a drink when they are cold. The problem is that alcohol, at concentrations people typically drink, is a vasodilator. This means that it causes blood vessels to widen (dilate). This is particularly prominent at the vessels (capillaries) just under your skin surface. This delivers more blood to the surface where it is easier for it to exchange heat and cool down. Therefore, a person feels warm but their body temperature is actually decreasing.

One interesting study I found compared the effects of alcohol on a group of individuals who are quadriplegic (experimental group) compared to individuals who are able bodied (control group) (Malpas,  Robinson, & Maling, 1990). The experimental group did not experience vasodilation which indicates that the trigger for vasodilation is in the central nervous system. In other words, although we see the impact of alcohol near the skin’s surface, it is actually the central nervous system that is being affected directly.

So what does this mean for your holiday indulgence? If you’re inside, it probably won’t mean anything except that you’ll feel a little warm. But if you’re outside in the cold the vasodilation, combined with impaired judgement, there is a risk of trying to cool off by removing clothing layers. This increases the risks of cold related conditions like hypothermia.

Stay safe and of course don’t drink and drive.

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.

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