Drinking to the point of a blackout has gained pop culture notoriety in recent years. An alcohol blackout can lead to impaired memory of events that transpired while intoxicated, and a drastically increased risk of injuries and other harms. They can occur in anyone who drinks alcohol, no matter their age or level of experience with drinking.
What Does Alcohol Blackout Mean?
Alcohol blackouts are gaps in a person’s memory for events that occurred while they were intoxicated. These gaps happen when a person drinks too much alcohol that temporarily blocking the transfer of memories from short-term to long-term storage—known as memory consolidation—in a brain area called the hippocampus.
Types of Blackouts
There are two types of blackouts; they are defined by the severity of the memory impairment. The most common type is called a “fragmentary blackout” and is characterized by spotty memories for events, with “islands” of memories separated by missing periods of time in between. This type is sometimes referred to as a gray out or a brownout.
Complete amnesia, often spanning hours, is known as an “en bloc” blackout. With this severe form of a blackout, memories of events do not form and typically cannot be recovered. It is as if the events simply never occurred.
What Causes an Alcohol Blackout?
When sober, memories are formed after sensory input is processed in short-term memory through a process called transfer encoding, which is then moved through a similar process into an individual’s long-term memory. Excessive alcohol consumption can trigger a chemical reaction in the brain that disrupts this process and prevents the brain from making new memories.
Alcohol interferes with receptors in the brain that carry signals between neurons, causing some brain cells to then manufacture steroids that prevent memory formation. When a person is blacked out, the brain continues to process information but is incapable of forming new memories due to this reaction.
As far as long-term memory is concerned, there are people who wake up in the morning after a night of drinking with no recollection of what happened. This is a rather terrifying experience. It is impossible to remember everything that happened the night before an alcohol blackout. As far as the long-term effects of frequent alcohol blackouts, it does have an impact. It can lead to issues with memory loss and retention. There is evidence to suggest that it can also be a contributing factor to Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Alcohol Blackout Symptoms
Alcohol blackouts can be difficult to identify, as the person may be fully capable of engaging in regular behaviors. They may go on having conversations, eating, and in many cases, continuing to drink. This makes blackouts more common than most people realize. If you are looking for indicators that someone is in the danger zone, look for alcohol blackout symptoms, including:
- Being unaware of or confused by one’s surroundings
- Lacking concern for the thoughts and feelings of others
- Engaging in unusually risky behaviors
- Consuming large quantities of alcohol over a short time period
- Being easily distracted
- Constantly forgetting what one has just said, what one was talking about or what one was just doing
- Repeating the same sentences or questions over and over again without appearing to remember that they are repeating themselves
If you are concerned about experiencing a blackout from drinking yourself, keep the following measures in mind:
- Never drink on an empty stomach, which can rapidly raise your BAC to dangerous levels
- Do not mix alcohol with any other substances, like medication or drugs
- Opt for beer or wine and drink at a measured pace, rather than rapidly taking shots
- Do not drink alone with people you don’t know — take a friend with you just in case
- Drink water regularly to dilute the alcohol
What Happens to the Body During a Blackout?
Blackouts tend to begin at blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) of about 0.16 percent (nearly twice the legal driving limit) and higher. At these BACs, most cognitive abilities (e.g., impulse control, attention, judgment, and decision-making) are significantly impaired. The level of impairment that occurs at such high BACs makes the intoxication level associated with blackouts especially dangerous. Alcohol blackouts can occur at much lower BACs in people who drink and take sleep and anti-anxiety medications.
Research indicates that blackouts are more likely to occur when alcohol enters the bloodstream quickly, causing the BAC to rise rapidly. This could happen if someone drinks on an empty stomach or consumes large amounts of alcohol in a short amount of time. Because females, on average, weigh less than males and, pound for pound, have less water in their bodies, they tend to reach higher peak BAC levels than males with each drink and do so more quickly. This helps explain why being female appears to be a risk factor for having blackouts.
Because blackouts tend to occur at high BACs, they commonly stem from binge drinking, defined as a pattern of drinking that increases a person’s BAC to 0.08 percent or higher. This typically occurs after 4 drinks for women and 5 drinks for men—in about 2 hours. In fact, many people who have blackouts do so after engaging in a behavior known as high-intensity drinking, which is defined as drinking at levels that are at least twice as high as the binge-drinking thresholds for women and men.
Alcohol Blackout Behavior
Blackouts can occur in people who don’t fit the criteria for an alcohol use disorder (AUD). In fact, it may be easier for someone who doesn’t usually drink much to get blackout drunk, as those with a higher alcohol tolerance typically have to drink more to create this state. Once blackouts become frequent, they do become an indicator of addiction if they occur alongside other symptoms of alcohol addiction, including:
- Not being able to control how much you drink
- Wanting or trying to cut down on the amount but being unsuccessful in your attempts
- Spending increasing amounts of time thinking about alcohol, drinking, purchasing alcohol and recovering from alcohol use
- Struggling with strong cravings and urges to drink
- Falling behind or failing to fulfill normal obligations at work, school or at home due to alcohol use
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms like shaking, sweating and nausea when you don’t or can’t drink
- Continuing to drink despite knowledge of the social, physical and psychological problems it is causing
- Withdrawing from or reducing hobbies and activities you used to enjoy
- Isolating yourself from friends and family in favor of drinking, or so you can avoid explaining your drinking
- Developing a tolerance for alcohol, so that you need to drink more to feel the desired effect
- Drinking in inappropriate, dangerous situations such as before driving or swimming
In combination with any of these symptoms, blackouts and memory loss when drinking are indicators that you are struggling with an alcohol use disorder (AUD) and need appropriate treatment to recover from the damage alcohol is doing to your mind and body.
Blackouts vs. Passing Out
A blackout is not the same as “passing out,” which means either falling asleep or losing consciousness from drinking too much. During a blackout, a person is still awake but their brain is not creating new memories. Depending on how much the person drank, it is possible to transition from having a blackout to passing out.
Who is at Risk for an Alcohol Blackout?
While anyone who drinks is at risk for alcohol blackouts, there are some factors that put people in greater danger of drinking and not remembering things. Women’s hormones and body composition mean they become intoxicated with less alcohol than men, which is why the definition of binge drinking differs between men and women. Because women’s BAC rises faster, they are at greater risk for blackouts.
Teens and young adults are also at risk for alcohol blackouts, primarily due to their inexperience with the substance. They may have fewer opportunities to drink and feel the need to “make the most” of these experiences by drinking to excess.
How To Prevent Blackouts
In addition to abstaining from alcohol, moderation and pace are important to preventing blackouts. Avoid binge drinking, which is defined as consuming five or more drinks in about two hours for men, or four or more drinks for women.
To prevent blackouts, you should:
- Eat a meal or heavy appetizers before and during alcohol consumption.
- Drink slowly. Sipping, rather than gulping, can help you keep track of how alcohol is affecting your body.
- Consider drinking a glass of water between alcoholic drinks to limit how much and how quickly you’re consuming alcohol.
Are Blackouts a Sign of an Alcohol-Related Problem?
Blackouts are not necessarily a sign of alcohol use disorder, but experiencing even one is a reason for concern and should prompt people to consider their relationship with alcohol and talk to their healthcare provider about their drinking.
Getting Treatment for Alcohol Use and Addiction
To help you obtain and maintain long-term sobriety, we favor a personalized approach to care. From the moment you begin with us, our counselors will help you find a path that fits with your background, your substance(s) of choice, your lifestyle; your interests, and your unique needs.
To Best Customize Our Levels of Care To Your Needs, our programming includes:
- Group Addiction Therapy
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
- Mindfulness Training for Stress Reduction
- Family Therapy
- Individual Therapy
- Humanistic Therapy
Reclaim Your Life From Alcohol Blackouts
If you or someone you love, think they are experiencing Alcohol Use Disorder symptoms, or having too many Alcohol Blackouts lately, know that We Level Up Washington can provide the tools to recover from Alcoholism with professional and safe treatment. Feel free to call us to speak with one of our counselors. We can inform you about this condition by giving you relevant information. Our specialists know what you are going through. Please know that each call is private and confidential.