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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:

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.

The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation is a force of healing and hope for individuals, families and communities affected by addiction to alcohol and other drugs. As the nation's leading nonprofit provider of comprehensive inpatient and outpatient addiction and mental health care for adults and youth, the Foundation has treatment centers and telehealth services nationwide as well as a network of collaborators throughout health care. Through charitable support and a commitment to innovation, the Foundation is able to continually enhance care, research, programs and services, and help more people. With a legacy that began in 1949 and includes the 1982 founding of the Betty Ford Center, the Foundation today is committed to diversity, equity and inclusion in its services and throughout the organization, which also encompasses a graduate school of addiction studies, a publishing division, an addiction research center, recovery advocacy and thought leadership, professional and medical education programs, school-based prevention resources and a specialized program for children who grow up in families with addiction.

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