Risk Factors Connected to Addiction During Winter

Depressed addict in winter

The change of the seasons is seen by many as a new chapter in life. But for those who struggle with drug and alcohol addiction, the departure of summer and autumn and the onset of winter brings more hardship and struggle. When winter sets in, life changes for people who use drugs and alcohol. Life gets worse, with added factors that significantly exacerbate existing dangers.

From being more likely to use drugs, and from being more likely to experience key physiological and emotional changes in the cold weather, the fact is that substance abuse during winter creates additional risk. This is just another reason why it is so important for addicts to get help as soon as possible.

Various Risk Factors Spike During Winter

There are a few harmful factors that come with drinking and using drugs in particularly cold weather. These factors make drinking and drug use (already dangerous) even more dangerous.

1) Cold weather numbs the senses, slows down heart rate, and slows breathing. There is reason to believe opioid addicts may be less likely to notice the preliminary signs of an overdose as a result. The sensations that an opioid user experiences when they are beginning to overdose are often already present for someone who is quite cold. An addict who may ordinarily be cognizant of the dangerous signs of an opioid overdose may not notice them when using opioids in cold winter weather.

2) When cold weather numbs the senses, drug users are more likely to use more drugs than they are accustomed to because they are not getting the same psychological and physiological effects from the substance they have come to expect. The cold weather causes them to perceive a need for more drugs in order to get the same effect from the drugs. This can also lead to an overdose.

Alone at home

3) Addicts are more likely to use drugs and alcohol on their own during winter. People spend more time indoors during winter because of the cold weather, the snow, and the harsh outdoor climate. Bad roads make traveling about one’s town or city less enjoyable, and social gatherings diminish as a result. This is harmful because, while using drugs in groups is never okay or acceptable, solo use is much worse. When addicts use substances on their own, they are more likely to suffer seriously harmful effects, even death, because no one is there to help them should an emergency occur.

4) It’s not just drug use that is more dangerous during winter. The same is true with alcohol abuse. People also tend to experience more alcohol-related harm during winter, as drinking alcohol can increase one’s risk for cold weather-related ailments, like hypothermia. Quoting Professor Colin Drummond, Head of the Section of Alcohol Research at King’s College London, “When you drink, it dilates the peripheral blood vessels near your skin, which means more blood – and heat – flows to these vessels. 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.” Much like drug use, alcohol use in cold weather is harmful to drinkers because they cannot rely on their body’s warning signals. The body is just too cold, and the drinker is more at risk for harm because of it.

“When you drink, it dilates the peripheral blood vessels near your skin, which means more blood – and heat – flows to these vessels. 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.”
Winter ambulance

5) Perhaps most critically, fatal opioid overdoses go up when the temperature drops to a freezing level. Research from Brown University’s School of Public Health laid this out quite clearly. Researchers found a 25% increase in fatal overdoses immediately following periods of freezing temperatures, as compared to days when temps stayed around 50 degrees Fahrenheit. To verify the data, the researchers compared overdose death figures on colder days during winter, particularly days that had followed a cold snap, to milder days during winter. There was an irrefutable connection between colder days and higher overdose numbers.

6) And it’s not just physiological (body-related) or behavioral (staying at home alone) risk factors that the cold weather brings. There is a psychological and emotional side to this as well. People will often use substances as a coping mechanism for unpleasant weather and the emotional effect such weather has on them. For example, another body of research found that among 193 sovereign countries, rates of alcohol consumption and incidences of alcoholic cirrhosis increase on a global level when temperatures drop and the days lose their long sunlight hours.

7) The above data for alcohol consumption is also true with drug use. Cold weather + fewer sunlight hours + an increase in unpleasant emotions and unwanted psychological factors = increased likelihood that addicts will use drugs to cope with unpleasant climate and weather conditions.

8) Much in the same way that people tend to exercise less and eat more during winter, people who use drugs and alcohol are more likely to experiment with their substance of choice during winter, and more often and in higher amounts. Someone who already drinks too much on the weekends may feel less inclined to go outside for exercise on the weekday evenings when it’s cold out and the sun sets early. They may stay indoors and drink alcohol instead. By itself, the additional time spent indoors is a risk factor, not just for overdose risk, but for the simple fact that one is alone, inside.

9) The winter holidays are often seen as an excuse to recreationally consume mind-altering substances, often as a “social lubricant” and a way to “get along better” with family members and loved ones. This however is a slippery slope to excessive consumption.

The Importance of Seeking Help

Given that the winter months bring on a new series of risk factors for struggling addicts, it becomes even more important that the family members of addicts help their struggling loved ones get into treatment as soon as possible. Don’t let this winter be your loved one’s last. Seek the help of a qualified treatment center today.


Reviewed and edited by Claire Pinelli; ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP, LCDC



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.