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What are Alcohol Blackouts?

Alcohol-related blackouts refer to gaps in a person’s memory of events that happened while they were intoxicated. Too much alcohol can temporarily inhibit the transfer of memories from short- to long-term storage in an area of the brain called the hippocampus. This is known as memory consolidation. 

Blacking out can happen to anyone who drinks too much, no matter their age or experience drinking. And, if it happens to someone you’re with, it can be alarming. People who are blackout drunk are often not in control of their behavior. Their impaired state of mind could put them at risk of compulsive behavior, physical injury, alcohol poisoning, and death. 

Surprisingly, blacking out from excessive drinking is not uncommon. Many people who drink alcohol have blacked out at some point in their lives to some degree. 

For example, research shows that over half of college students who drink have experienced a blackout at some level. Other research suggests that about 50 percent of all drinkers have blacked out or have experienced at least partial memory loss due to drinking. Still, heavy drinking habits and alcohol use disorder (AUD) are linked to more frequent blackouts. 

Types of Blackouts

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, there are two different types of alcohol-induced blackouts. These are defined by the severity of the alcohol consumer’s memory impairment.

  1. Fragmentary Blackout — This is the most common type of blackout, sometimes called a "grayout" or "brownout." It refers to a spotty recollection of events with “islands” of memories. Typically, a person who has a fragmentary blackout can remember some things, but they miss entire events in between. 
  2. Complete Amnesia — Also known as en bloc blackout, this refers to a total blackout that usually spans hours. When this happens, memories do not form or store, so they can’t necessarily be recovered. Typically, a person who has a total blackout feels as though the events that occurred while they were intoxicated never occurred at all.

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Who is at Higher Risk for Alcohol Blackouts?

Alcohol affects people differently. Because of this, some people are at higher risk for alcohol blackouts. These include:

  • Women
  • Adolescents and young adults
  • Those who take anti-anxiety and sleep medications
  • People who are unable to manage stress effectively

What Happens When You Blackout from Alcohol?

When a person experiences an alcohol blackout, it doesn't mean that they aren't conscious. In fact, despite drinking too much, they often continue to interact normally with other people and may even drive themselves home. 

It’s important to note that blacking out and passing out are two different things. While passing out from excessive alcohol consumption means falling asleep or losing consciousness, people who black out are still awake. However, their brains cannot form new memories, so they’ll likely feel confused and “in the dark” about what happened the next day.

People who are blackout drunk can go through normal behaviors and can bring themselves home, cook, eat, and brush their teeth. However, they won't remember these once they start to sober up. It is referred to as alcohol-induced amnesia. This is because their brain doesn't move the events into memory. As soon as they are sober, only then will the brain start to normally process memories again.

The worst-case scenario is a person experiencing a blackout will also pass out. This happens when a person has consumed too much alcohol that the body can no longer handle it. This can lead to vomiting, choking, falls, injuries, seizures, and alcohol poisoning.

Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Blackout

The behaviors of blackout drunk people will vary depending on several factors, such as their blackout level. Generally, someone who is blackout drunk:

  • May be slurring their words
  • May be feeling very dizzy
  • May lack coordination and psychomotor skills
  • May be very nauseous and vomiting
  • May be severely intoxicated
  • May lose consciousness
  • May have trouble remembering
  • May get easily distracted
  • May often repeat themselves many times during a conversation
  • May appear indifferent about the feelings or thoughts of other people
  • May engage in risky and dangerous behaviors

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Why Do Alcohol Blackouts Happen?

Alcohol blackouts happen when a person consumes large amounts of alcohol and blood alcohol concentration (BAC) reaches at least 0.16 percent. This is nearly twice the legal driving limit. A person's cognitive abilities like impulse control, attention, decision-making, and judgment are severely impaired. It makes sense, then, that people who suffer from alcohol addiction may black out more often.

People may also experience blackouts at a much lower blood alcohol level. This is especially true for people who take sleep or anti-anxiety medications while drinking.

Research also suggests that blackouts occur most often when blood alcohol content level rises rapidly. So if a person drinks on an empty stomach or consumes a lot of alcohol in a short amount of time, their BAC level could increase faster than usual. Binge drinking and high-intensity drinking often result in alcohol blackout.

Is it Bad to Blackout From Drinking?

While memory blackouts from drinking can happen to anyone, it is dangerous. Blackouts occur because of impaired cognitive abilities, putting people at risk of behaving impulsively, making risky decisions, and injuring themselves. Blacking out can also lead to death from injury or alcohol poisoning.

Short-Term Effects of Blacking Out

In the short-term, drinking enough to blackout means that the brain is not making memories or storing them. Instead, the brain is significantly impaired, and the person may be engaging in risky behaviors such as acting impulsively, making bad decisions, and making poor judgment calls. 

Long-Term Effects of Blacking Out

The long-term effects of blacking out can take a severe toll and lead to significant and even permanent health problems. This is because blacking out damages the brain’s frontal lobe, which controls cognitive function. And blacking out from chronic alcohol abuse is associated with brain, liver, heart, and pancreas problems, as well as some types of cancers.

How to Stop Blacking Out When Drinking 

To stop blacking out when drinking, it’s best to keep the BAC level low. Because blacking out tends to occur at 0.16 percent, be conscious of how much you drink and how quickly you drink it. 

The government’s Dietary Guidelines recommend that if you’re going to consume alcohol, you should do so in moderation. Moderate alcohol consumption is defined as one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men of the legal drinking age.

Also, make sure to eat and hydrate before, during, and after drinking to help prevent blackouts. If you’re taking any drugs, such as sleep or anti-anxiety medications, stay mindful of how they may interact with alcohol and how they can increase your BAC more rapidly.

If you or someone you know is blacking out often or struggling with alcohol abuse, reach out to professional help or call Addiction Group for more information on top treatment resources. Treatment options are available to help you reduce or quit drinking, from rehabilitation centers to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and medication-assisted treatment (MAT). You don’t have to (and shouldn’t) navigate this journey alone.

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Resources

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Alcohol Overdose What Should You Do?,” Alcohol Poisoning - What to Do

Alcohol Questions and Answers,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 15 Jan. 2020

Interrupted Memories: Alcohol-Induced Blackouts,” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Marino, Elise N., and Kim Fromme. “Alcohol-Induced Blackouts and Maternal Family History of Problematic Alcohol Use,” Addictive Behaviors, Pergamon, 13 Feb. 2015

“Signs of Alcohol Intoxication.” Ada, ada.com/conditions/alcohol-intoxication/

Wetherill, Reagan R, and Kim Fromme. “Alcohol-Induced Blackouts: A Review of Recent Clinical Research with Practical Implications and Recommendations for Future Studies,” Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research, U.S. National Library of Medicine, May 2016.

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