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Explained: Why IMD has advised people not to drink alcohol during the cold wave

Severe cold wave conditions are likely in parts of Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and Rajasthan from December 29 onward. In light of this, the IMD has advised people against drinking alcohol. What is the connection?

An alcoholic beverage to beat the chill on a cold winter night might seem like a good idea to many, but the IMD and several health experts have warned otherwise. (File Photo/Representational)

Predicting a severe cold wave in the national capital and several other parts of North India, the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) issued a rather unusual advisory. In an impact-based advisory, the IMD urged residents of India’s northernmost states to protect themselves from the biting cold by avoiding alcohol.

According to the IMD, severe cold wave conditions are likely in parts of Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and Rajasthan from December 29 onward. Maximum temperature is also forecast to fall by 3 to 5 degrees Celsius after December 28.

What did the IMD say in its recent impact-based advisory?

In its latest advisory, the IMD said the weather conditions were likely to increase the risk of contracting illnesses like the flu, and could also lead to symptoms like runny/stuffy nose and nosebleeds, which usually set in or are aggravated due to prolonged exposure to the cold.

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The weather department also warned of frostbite, a condition where the skin turns pale, hard and numb and is eventually left with black blisters when exposed to extreme cold conditions. “Do not ignore shivering,” the notice read. “It is the first sign that the body is losing heat. Get indoors”.

To avoid an adverse reaction to the cold wave, the IMD shared a list of recommendations, one of which was avoiding alcohol as it “reduces your body temperature”. The department also urged people to limit outdoor activities, moisturise their skin regularly with oil or cream, eat vitamin-C rich fruits and vegetables and drink warm fluids to maintain immunity.

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But is alcohol really bad for you in cold weather?

An alcoholic beverage to beat the chill on a cold winter night might seem like a good idea to many, but the IMD and several health experts have warned otherwise. While alcohol may make you feel warmer, it actually reduces your body temperature and compromises your immunity if you then venture out into the cold, experts say.

According to a study jointly conducted by the Thermal Physiology and the Medicine Division, US Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, alcohol can decrease the core temperature of the body and increase the risk of hypothermia during cold exposure.

Hypothermia is a severe medical condition where the body loses heat before it can generate it, resulting in a dangerously low body temperature. While normal body temperature lies at around 37 degrees Celsius, the body temperature of a person suffering from hypothermia drops to below 35 degrees Celsius. Common signs include shivering, slow rate of breathing, slurred speech, cold skin and fatigue.

Heavy alcohol consumption is often linked to an increased risk of hypothermia and other conditions linked to extreme cold weather. The study points out that alcohol has psychological and behavioural effects, which can impact a person’s ability to correctly perceive how cold it is. Hence, cases of people succumbing to hypothermia after drinking heavily and passing out outdoors are very commonly reported in places with extreme cold weather.

According to the American Association of Family Physicians, a retrospective study in 2004 showed that alcohol consumption is associated with 68 per cent of accidental hypothermia cases.

How does alcohol reduce your body temperature?

Alcohol is a vasodilator, which means that it causes blood vessels to relax and dilate or open. So after consuming alcohol, the volume of blood brought to the skin’s surface increases, making you feel warmer as a result. This is also what causes an intoxicated person to look flushed.

As the body begins to believe that it is warm, you also start to sweat — a reaction that automatically reduces overall body temperature. Drinking copious amounts of alcohol may affect your bodies ability to detect the cold properly, which is in place to protect you from frostbite and hypothermia.

However, experts say drinking moderately in temperate environments does not significantly affect the core temperature of the body.

What is a cold wave and what was the IMD’s forecast?

In its forecast on Friday, the IMD said minimum temperatures would rise in the plains of north India — including in Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and north Rajasthan — until Sunday, before falling by 3 to 5 degrees Celsius.

According to the IMD, cold northwesterly winds blowing from the western Himalayan region would lead to cold or severe cold wave conditions in parts of Delhi, Punjab, Haryana and Chandigarh from Monday onwards.

A cold wave occurs when the minimum temperature dips to 10 degrees Celsius or less and the departure from normal temperature is 4.5 degrees Celsius or lower. In severe cold wave conditions, departure from normal temperature is 6.5 degrees or lower. Delhi has recorded five cold wave days so far this month.

Maximum temperature is also forecast to fall by 3 to 5 degrees Celsius after December 28. Rainfall and snowfall is forecast in Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand under the influence of a Western Disturbance between Sunday and Monday.

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