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Winter Storm Ion precautions issued, drinking alcohol can be fatal

As officials advise the public to take extra precautions during today's record-breaking Winter Storm Ion, one less discussed warning is that drinking alcohol in freezing temperatures can result in rapid death.

Alcohol and sub-freezing conditions don't mix

"This storm will be one for the record books, and we want to make sure everyone stays safe and warm until it passes,” Gov. Pat Quinn said in a statement on Saturday. “State crews continue working around the clock to keep residents safe and to respond to any emergency situations that may occur."

The National Weather Service forecasts historically cold temperatures throughout Illinois just after heavy snow blanketed much of the north.

A Wind Chill Warning was issued for much of the Chicago metropolitan area, along with dozens of other major U.S. cities.

Wind chills will be between -40 and -50 there in Chicago and as low as -65 in some places, such as North Dakota where power outages have already occurred on Sunday.

State police are warning drivers that road conditions are expected to "deteriorate" throughout much of the nation Sunday night and into Monday morning.

Kane County Sheriff's Office warned residents that road conditions were "deteriorating rapidly" Sunday.

"The higher winds are starting to cause roads to drift over and become impassable," said Lieutenant Pat Gengler in a statement.

Being in an accident or having a car stall in such icy, windy, snow drifting conditions can cause frostbite and be fatal.

Human flesh can freeze within five minutes in such harsh conditions.

Drinking alcohol in such conditions also be fatal.

Alcohol and freezing storm conditions don't mix

One precaution not discussed as much as others is to not consume alcohol if stuck in the cold or heading into it for unavoidable reason.

While drinking alcohol has a reputation for warming us up on cold days because it makes us feel warmer when we drink it, the truth is that it can actually result in death.

Alcohol does nothing to warm us up and is a quick way to die from hypothermia in a cold environment.

Mythbusters explains:

Alcohol may make your skin feel warm, but this apparent heat wave is deceptive. A nip or two actually causes your blood vessels to dilate, moving warm blood closer to the surface of your skin, making you feel warmer temporarily. At the same time, however, those same veins pumping blood closer to the skin's surface cause you to lose core body heat - the heat you need to survive, especially if you're stuck in a snowdrift.

“If you go out in the cold after drinking, because you’ve got a lot of heat on the periphery of your body, you can lose heat very easily and quickly. And that can be dangerous,” says Professor Colin Drummond, head of the Section of Alcohol Research at King’s College London. “That takes blood and heat away from the core of your body. So while it feels like you’re warm because your skin is warm, your vital organs aren’t as warm as you might think they are."

Drinking heavily and then venturing out into arctic conditions, the faulty internal thermometer along with the dulling of senses and bravado that alcohol can create, can spell trouble.

“Drinking too much leads to bad decisions,” says Prof Drummond. “If you drunkenly decide to walk home across a snowy field instead of getting a taxi, you’re putting yourself at risk. Hypothermia can take hold quickly and can even lead to death.”

For this reason, if one sees a homeless person or youth out in these extreme conditions, it is better to reach out and help or to call a friend or 911 for help.

Other precautions being issued amid Ion

Public Alerts also advises one take the following precautions in Winter Storm Ion:

  • Avoid overexertion when shoveling snow. Overexertion can result in heart attack - a major cause of death in the winter. If you must shovel snow, stretch before going outside.
  • Stay dry. Change wet clothing frequently to prevent a loss of body heat. Wet clothing loses all of its insulating value and transmits heat rapidly.
  • Watch for frostbite signs: loss of feeling and white or pale appearance in extremities such as fingers, toes, ear lobes, and the tip of the nose. If symptoms are detected, get medical help immediately.
  • Conserve fuel, if necessary, by keeping your residence cooler than normal. Temporarily close off heat to some rooms.

The Red Cross has released information on being prepared for the winter storm, including knowing the difference between public announcements:

  • Winter Storm Outlook - Winter storm conditions are possible in the next 2 to 5 days.
  • Winter Weather Advisory - Winter weather conditions are expected to cause significant inconveniences and may be hazardous. When caution is used, these situations should not be life threatening.
  • Winter Storm Watch - Winter storm conditions are possible within the next 36 to 48 hours. People in a watch area should review their winter storm plans and stay informed about weather conditions.
  • Winter Storm Warning - Life-threatening, severe winter conditions have begun or will begin within 24 hours. People in a warning area should take precautions immediately.
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