Is Hypothermic Alcohol Consumption Death Common?
February 3, 2005 5:40 PM   Subscribe

In T Coraghessan Boyle's excellent novel Drop City, there's a scene in which a character dies after drinking alcohol outside in the midst of a deeply freezing night in Alaska. Boyle doesn't really explain it, but I'm wondering if this is a commonly known actual way of dying; if so, is there some temperature at which drinking booze in sub-arctic conditions becomes hazardous to one's health?
posted by jgballard to Health & Fitness (19 answers total)
Falling asleep in freezing temperatures is definitely a "known actual way of dying" - isn't there a tolstoy story about that, actually? Or is it some other russian author... driving home in a carriage on a freezing night... anyone?

Anyhoo. Alcohol makes some people sleepy and a lot of people feel warmer than they actually are, so drinking in some climates is certainly dangerous if you expect to be away from yr fireplace...
posted by mdn at 5:45 PM on February 3, 2005

I'd imagine the character froze to death and was too drunk to notice. In my understanding of it, freezing to death is a relatively calm way of dying, sort of like passing out and not waking up. I could see how a person could get very drunk, pass out, and die from exposure without much struggle.

Or, what mdn said.
posted by mmcg at 5:46 PM on February 3, 2005

Basically, alcohol dilates the peripheral blood vessels, so you feel warm (thanks to the extra blood flowing to your extremities) but are actually cooling your core body. Once you get too cold... See here, for a few comments on the subject.
posted by RecalcitrantYouth at 5:48 PM on February 3, 2005

You're also less likely to think about the fact "gee, if I pass out/fall asleep out here, I won't wake up at all" due to the warm feeling and general lack of astuteness you get when you're drunk. A friend of mine who has lived in Antarctica says that this is actually a problem there. There's one place to drink and it's not in the same place where people live/sleep. They have a pretty serious buddy system when people go home.
posted by jessamyn at 6:02 PM on February 3, 2005

I've read in arctic explorer books and the like (can't remember any titles) that one can die drinking hard liquor in extreme cold because alcohol's freezing point is far lower than water's, resulting in ingest a big dollop of -30-degree liquid in such a way that trauma results to the system and immediate death ensues.

There's no source that I can cite, and I may have read it in a work of fiction, but it seems reasonable to me. Take this comment as a wild-assed guess and not an authoritative response.
posted by stet at 6:26 PM on February 3, 2005

Alcohol has a lower freezing point than water.

So pure alcohol can be very very cold and still liquid.

It's claimed that the same sort of deaths occurred in Siberia: Russians would drink straight vodka that had reached absurdly low temperatures but was still liquid, the cold liquid would hit their stomachs, and bring their core body temperatures down low enough, quickly enough to kill them outright.

Whether these claims are true, I don't know (they may be but probably are not from <>The Gulag Archipelago), but I imagine Boyle may have heard these same stories.
posted by orthogonality at 6:29 PM on February 3, 2005

The esophagus passes behind the left atrium. Drinking large amounts of very cold liquid could possibly trigger heart failure in people prone to tachycardia.
posted by joaquim at 6:32 PM on February 3, 2005

My grandpa told me a story of a fellow serviceman in Alaska who basically shattered his esophagus with a belt of alcohol. I don't know how much embellishment was in play, but it corroborates stet and ortho somewhat.
posted by blueshammer at 6:54 PM on February 3, 2005

Yah, I'm going with the extremely cold alcohol = frozen, ruptured body cells when it comes in contact with the throat and stomach.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:22 PM on February 3, 2005

Plus the drop in core body temperature would throw your body into a massive hypothermic shutdown.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:22 PM on February 3, 2005

I just finished this book (having followed T. Coraghessan ever since his "Moose Strikes Train" short story in the 1980's), and loved it, except for the fact that it was way too short.

I had to re-read the part where the guy drinks the super-cold alcohol and think for a minute about it, but it makes sense to me. Alcohol can be liquid at temperatures significantly lower than freezing, maybe even to the point of flash-freezing your innards as it goes down. That would certainly account for the nasty way in which that unfortunate fellow gets it.

Read everything by T. C. Boyle - he is the shizzle fa rizzle.
posted by Aquaman at 10:05 PM on February 3, 2005

I live in Fairbanks, Alaska, and can verify that people do die after becoming drunk and passing out before they get inside. One gentleman died this very way last winter only a few feet from his back door when it was around -20F. I cannot, however, verify the cold-alcohol claim.
posted by rhapsodie at 10:45 PM on February 3, 2005

I never heard about the drinking-subzero-liquid thing before, but it's not unreasonable. The reason I had heard about is the taking heat from the core to warm the extremities mechanism. The body's normal priority is to maintain core temperature. When it starts to drop, the body lessens blood flow to the extremities. This is how frostbite happens. Drinking alcohol interferes with this, so it's possible for a person to die from hypothermia without frozen toes, or whatever.

Please also note that very cold temperatures are not necessary for you to die from hypothermia. You can die from what is sometimes called "exposure" anytime you can't maintain your core temperature. Being immersed in cool water for a long time can (and does) kill people. Also be aware that wearing wet cotton clothing in cold weather can be worse than wearing no clothing. (From a body-temp standpoint.)
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:18 AM on February 4, 2005

mdn, I think you're thinking of Master and Man.

Drinking alcohol in the cold is a fairly well-known way to die, at least in my family; my great-great-grandfather, Moses Toussant Navarre, died drunk, frozen in the snow only 5 yards from the door of his cabin in Northern Michigan in 1919. His father had died in similar circumstances about a decade earlier. Moses's family promptly moved to South Florida, where now we've started a new drunken-death tradition, dying drunk while messing with wild animals (grandfather - alligator, 1966, uncle Rob, pygmy rattlesnake, 1989).
posted by saladin at 5:58 AM on February 4, 2005 [2 favorites]

As mentioned above, part of the reason is the alcohol makes you think you are warm when you are not. (I think RecalcitrantYouth's link best sums it up).

When I was in the Reserves, we'd occasionally be issued with a Rum ration during winter exercises. When that did occur, the unit was generally stood down for the rest of the night with minimal activity going on outside. The effect of alcohol and the cold was explained to us, as was the reason for standing down the unit.
posted by smcniven at 8:22 AM on February 4, 2005

Be careful, saladin. I think evolution has it out for your family...
posted by five fresh fish at 9:47 AM on February 4, 2005

It doesn't even have to be that cold outside for this to happen. A very close relative of mine died this way in late October 1998, in New Mexico. It was in the low 30's.
posted by acridrabbit at 10:19 AM on February 4, 2005

Time to control the text. The hypothermia/body core cooling/thinking you're warmer than you are hypotheses are fine, but here's what happens in the book:
It was a mistake. And he knew it was a mistake in that instant. His throat seized and he doubled over, his whole body jolted with the shock of it. He was all ice inside, the liquid supercooled in that flash beneath the trees till it was a new kind of death he was pouring down his throat, and he only wanted it out of him. It wouldn't come. He was on his hands and knees, gagging - gagging and coughing and retching - the fire laughing in his face, Joe Bosky slumped silent on a throne of spruce cuttings, and he kept gagging till all that cellular material that constituted the lining of his pharynx and esophagus sloughed loose and the tensed muscles of his limbs just couldn't keep him off the ground any longer.
Gross. Discuss.
posted by Aquaman at 10:38 AM on February 4, 2005

Data point. My hometown is both a boozers' paradise and brutally cold in winter -- 3 or 4 weeks of -35 to -45 Celsius per year, usually -- and when I was growing up, one or two guys would pass out and freeze to death every year.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:16 PM on February 4, 2005

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