Alcohol-related blackouts refer to gaps in someone’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.
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 blackout are still awake. It’s just that their brains are not creating new memories, so they’ll likely feel confused and “in the dark” about what happened the next day.
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 well 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 experienced at least partial memory loss due to drinking. Still, heavy drinking habits and alcohol use disorder (AUD) are linked to more frequent blackouts.
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.
To determine if someone is blackout drunk, there are some major signs to look out for. If someone you know does turn out to be blackout drunk, you must help them get home safely or receive medical attention if necessary.
The behaviors of blackout drunk people will vary depending on several factors, such as their level of blackout. Generally, someone who is blackout drunk:
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There are two different types of blackouts defined by the severity of the alcohol consumer’s memory impairment.
Either way, memory loss from drinking alcohol or substance abuse can feel scary and give some people mental health issues like anxiety.
You or someone you know may seem to blackout easily from drinking if your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) reaches at least about 0.16 percent, which is nearly twice the legal driving limit. This is when blackouts tend to happen because your cognitive abilities like impulsive 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.
You or someone you know 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 your BAC level rises rapidly. So if you drink on an empty stomach or consume a lot of alcohol in a short amount of time, your BAC level could increase quicker.
While memory blackouts from drinking can happen to anyone, it is dangerous. Blackouts occur because of your impaired cognitive abilities, which can put you at risk of behaving impulsively, making risky decisions, and injuring yourself. Blacking out can also lead to death from injury or alcohol poisoning.
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 judgement calls.
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.
To stop blacking out when drinking, it’s best to keep your 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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“Interrupted Memories: Alcohol-Induced Blackouts.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/interrupted-memories-alcohol-induced-blackouts.
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