Heat and alcohol--a dangerous combination
It's a sweltering Saturday afternoon in July, and you've just finished a pickup basketball
game at the park. A friend suggests that you hit a bar for a few drinks and then head
to the local beach for some tanning and swimming. Images of cold beer and cool lake water dance in your head for a minute, but you decide to cool off at home with some ice water instead.
Smart choice. Alcohol and hot weather activity can be a dangerous mix. The risks include accidents and heat illness.
"We get many people who drown because they were drunk in the water," says Dr. Steve Smith, emergency medicine physician at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis. "Boating accidents are a big problem. People fall off and get chewed up by the propeller, or they use personal watercraft while they're drunk and suffer major trauma or drown."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that alcohol use is a factor in up to 50 percent of adolescent and adult deaths associated with water recreation. Nearly one-third of boating fatalities involve alcohol use.
Alcohol interferes with balance, coordination and judgment. These effects are heightened by sun exposure and heat. This means that you can put yourself at risk during hot weather activity even if you don't have much to drink.
In the United States, a driver with a 0.08 blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is legally defined as drunk. But even at 0.02 BAC, your abilities to track a moving target and perform two tasks at the same time can be impaired. At 0.05 BAC (about 2.5 drinks in one hour), you can lose some small-muscle control (such as the ability to focus your eyes) and take longer to respond to emergencies. And at 0.08 BAC, alcohol's effects on your speech, vision, balance and reaction time make it nearly impossible for you to steer a boat or swim safely.
Impaired judgment caused by alcohol increases the risk of injury. Alcohol causes a loss of inhibitions and leads to reckless behavior. People impaired by alcohol misjudge swimming distances, how cold the water is, and when it's safe to operate a motor vehicle.
An added risk during all forms of hot weather activity is heat illness. Alcohol is a diuretic--meaning that it promotes dehydration--and interferes with your body's ability to regulate its own temperature. "Alcohol also dilates your blood vessels, as does warm weather, and therefore makes you more susceptible to passing out," says Smith.
Even an athlete in top condition can experience heat illness during extreme temperatures. This condition occurs in three stages. The first includes heat cramps due to loss of sodium while sweating. Second is heat exhaustion caused by dehydration. Heatstroke, the third and most serious stage, can lead to shock, organ failure, and death.
To protect yourself during hot weather activity, take steps to cool down. The CDC suggests the following:
- Drink plenty of fluids. Don't wait until you're thirsty to drink. During heavy exercise, drink 16 to 32 ounces of cool fluids each hour.
- Choose fluids carefully. A sports beverage can replace the minerals you lose while sweating. Avoid liquids that contain large amounts of sugar, which can lead to dehydration. Also stay away from very cold drinks, which can cause stomach cramps.
- Wear appropriate clothing and sunscreen. Choose lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing. When you go outdoors, protect yourself from the sun by wearing a wide-brimmed hat, putting on sunglasses, and by using a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or higher.
- Schedule outdoor activities carefully. Take advantage of cooler morning and evening temperatures.
- Pace yourself. Rest often in shady areas, especially if you feel lightheaded, confused, weak or faint. If you find yourself gasping for breath or feel your heart pounding, immediately stop all activity and get into a cool area.
Also remember that even moderate drinking--up to one drink per day for women and two for men--can put you at risk during hot weather activity. Your safest bet for summer fun is to stay alcohol-free.