Alcohol Blackout

Causes of Alcohol Blackout, People at Risk for an Alcohol Blackout, Signs and Symptoms of an Alcohol Blackout, Alcohol Blackout Treatment

In recent years, drinking to the point of blackout has acquired popularity in popular culture.  Alcohol blackout may result in the poor recall of events that occurred while drunk, as well as a significantly increased risk of injury and other hazards.  They may occur in anybody who consumes alcohol, regardless of age or degree of expertise.

Anyone who drinks an excessive amount of alcohol in a short time may be at risk of an alcohol overdose.  And an alcohol blackout may be a sign of severe alcoholism.  When there is too much alcohol in the circulation, regions of the brain that regulate vital life-support processes such as breathing, heart rate, and temperature regulation begin to shut down.  

Alcohol Blackout
Alcohol blackout is a sign of severe alcoholism.

Mental disorientation, difficulties staying awake, vomiting, seizure, difficulty breathing, sluggish heart rate, clammy skin, muted reflexes such as no gag reflex (which prevents choking), and very low body temperature are all symptoms of alcohol overdose.  Overdoes of alcoholic beverages may result in irreversible brain damage or death.

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What Are Blackouts?

Alcohol-related blackouts are gaps in a person’s recollection of events that happened while under the influence of alcohol.  These gaps occur when a person consumes enough alcohol to momentarily obstruct the transfer of memories from short-term to long-term storage, a process known as memory consolidation, in a brain region known as the hippocampus.

Types of Blackouts

There are two types of blackouts;  the severity of the memory impairment defines them.  The most common type is “fragmentary blackout,” characterized by spotty memories for events, with “islands” of memories separated by missing periods 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 blackout, memories of events do not form and typically cannot be recovered.  It is as if the events never occurred.

When Do Blackouts Occur?

Blackouts often begin at blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) of 0.16 percent or higher (almost twice the legal driving limit).  Most cognitive skills (e.g., impulse control, attention, judgment, and decision-making) are substantially compromised at these BACs.  Because of the degree of impairment at such high BACs, the level of drunkenness associated with blackouts is particularly hazardous.

People who drink and use sleep and anti-anxiety medicines may have blackouts at considerably lower BACs.

According to research, blackouts are more likely to occur when alcohol immediately enters the circulation, leading the BAC to increase fast.  This may occur if a person drinks on an empty stomach or consumes a significant quantity of alcohol in a short period.  Females, on average, weigh less than men and, pound for pound, have less water in their bodies;  thus, they achieve greater peak BAC levels with each drink and do so faster. This explains why being a woman seems to be a risk factor for blackouts.

Because blackouts frequently occur at high BACs, they are often the result of binge drinking, defined as a pattern of drinking that raises a person’s BAC to 0.08 percent or above.  This usually happens after four drinks for women and five drinks for men—in approximately two hours.  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. [1]

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.  Therefore, depending on how much the person drank, it is possible to transition from blackout to passing out.

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People at Risk for an Alcohol Blackout

While everyone who drinks is at risk of having an alcohol blackout, certain variables place individuals at a higher risk of drinking and forgetting things.  For example, women’s hormones and body composition cause them to get drunk with less alcohol than males, so the definition of binge drinking varies between men and women.  Furthermore, since women’s blood alcohol levels increase quicker, they are more likely to have blackouts.

Teens and young adults are also vulnerable to alcohol blackouts, owing to their lack of expertise with the chemical.  Consequently, individuals may have fewer drinking chances and may feel compelled to “make the most” of these occasions by indulging in excessive drinking.  Therefore, younger individuals are more prone to overestimate their capacity to drink alcohol responsibly while underestimating the effect of alcohol consumed before.

Signs and Symptoms of an Alcohol Blackout

Blackouts can be challenging to identify, as the person may fully engage in habitual behaviors.  For example, they may have conversations, eat, and, in many cases, continue to drink.  As a result, blackouts are more frequent than most people think.  If you’re searching for signs that someone is in danger, check for alcohol blackout symptoms such as:

  • They are easily distracted
  • Constantly forgetting what one has just said, what one was talking about or what one was doing
  • They repeat the same sentences or questions repeatedly without appearing to remember that they are repeating themselves
  • Being unaware of or confused by one’s surroundings
  • Lacking concern for the thoughts and feelings of others
  • Engaging in hazardous behaviors
  • Consuming large quantities of alcohol over a short period

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 — bring a friend with you just in case
  • Drink water regularly to dilute the alcohol

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Alcohol Blackout: Sign of Addiction

People who may not meet the criteria for an alcohol use disorder may have blackouts (AUD).  It may be simpler for someone who does not usually drink much to get blackout drunk since people with a greater alcohol tolerance must often consume more to achieve this condition.  However, if blackouts become regular, they may be used to diagnose addiction if they occur in conjunction with other signs of alcoholism, such as:

  • Not being able to control how much you drink
  • Wanting or trying to cut down on the amount but being unsuccessful in your attempts
  • They spend increasing amounts of time thinking about alcohol, drinking, purchasing alcohol, and recovering from alcohol use
  • Struggling with intense cravings and urges to drink
  • Falling behind or failing to fulfill normal obligations at work, school, or home due to alcohol use
  • 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
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms like shaking, sweating, and nausea when you don’t or can’t drink

When combined with any of these symptoms, blackouts and memory loss while drinking indicates that you are suffering from an alcohol use disorder (AUD) and need proper therapy to recover from the harm alcohol is causing to your mind and body.

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Alcohol Blackout
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[1] Interrupted Memories: Alcohol-Induced Blackouts – National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism