The brandy cure and other hypothermia myths

  • By Sharon Wootton
  • Friday, December 30, 2011 5:34pm
  • Life

For the first few decades of my life, I only saw pictures of St. Bernards with a little barrel hung around their necks.

The story was that, for a few centuries, monks at a monastery-run hospice sent out St. Bernards with brandy to warm up hypothermic travelers when they were rescued from snowstorms while crossing Great St. Bernard Pass.

The pass sits about 8,000 feet above sea level on a route through the Alps between Switzerland and Italy.

Great story, except that the brandy barrel is a myth.

According to “The Book of General Ignorance” (John Lloyd and John Mitchinson), in 1831 English artist Sir Edwin Landseer painted a portrait called “Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveller” that featured two St. Bernards.

To add a touch of interest, Landseer painted a miniature brandy barrel around its neck. He probably didn’t realize that while alcohol temporarily would make a person feel warmer, it dilates the blood vessels and can lead to more heat loss and can impair judgment.

More heat loss can lead to hypothermia or make existing hypothermia worse, affecting coordination and judgment.

Another myth busted.

Here are a few others, brought to you by researchers and wilderness experts using the latest studies.

It Won’t Happen to Me myth: More people die from hypothermia during the summer than winter. Hypothermia can happen any time the body’s core is lowered below 95 degrees. If it can happen in summer, it can happen to you in winter.

Hits Fast myth: Not so fast. Hypothermia takes time to develop. Don’t panic, because moderate to severe hypothermia takes even longer to develop. How long depends on the person and conditions.

Keep Moving myth: Think about it. You’ve been moving, snowshoeing, skiing, whatever, and your companion has signs of hypothermia: any combination of shivering, exhaustion, confusion, slurred speech or fatigue, or loss of motor control. Why would more exercise cure hypothermia?

Severely hypothermic people shouldn’t even sit, stand or walk until they are warm.

Don’t Take Off Wet Clothes myth: The common rationale is that you’ll be exposing the entire body to the cold if you take off wet clothes, even to put on dry ones. But trust me: Dry is better than wet, even with a temporary exposure to cold.

Naked is Good myth: Take off your clothes and your hypothermic companion’s, and huddle up in a zipped sleeping bag.

No, keep your clothes on. Put an insulating layer on the ground. Wrap the endangered one in dry insulating layers, including a windproof or waterproof layer if available. Put him or her in a sleeping bag or wrap with a blanket. Add a hat.

Shivering is good because it generates heat. Exposing your warm body to a naked cold body just puts you in danger.

Get Hot Quick myth: Do not set your companion in front of a roaring fire. Don’t try to warm the arms and legs with heat packs. Go for the core. If you have them, or even hot cloths, place under the arms or on the chest, groin area or neck, but don’t put them directly on the skin.

Massage or Brisk Rub myth: Sorry, but rubbing your companion is not helpful, especially if frostbite is a possibility. A hypothermic victim needs gentle, slow handling. Remember that in hypothermia, the heart becomes weaker.

Beard and Plush Hair myth: The more beard and head hair, the more warmth. Nope. Our hair isn’t fur. It isn’t dense enough to make any difference.

Anti-hypothermia techniques should work sufficiently for mild hypothermia sufferers to be able to reach civilization and go to a hospital.

If it’s moderate or severe, send for help, which brings us back to the St. Bernards. Historians have estimated that the animals rescued about 2,500 people since 1800.

According to “The Book of General Ignorance,” after 50 years or so of no rescues-by-Bernards, the monastery replaced them with a helicopter.

Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or

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