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Updated on September 26, 2022

Alcohol Blackouts

What are Alcohol Blackouts? Signs & Symptoms

The term blackout refers to an instance of short-term memory loss when a person was intoxicated.

Too much alcohol can temporarily inhibit the transfer of memories from short- to long-term storage in the brain. This is known as memory consolidation

It's important to note that blackouts are not the same as passing out. Someone who is "blackout drunk" may still be able to do complex tasks like hold conversations and spend money. This can make it difficult to identify if you or someone you know is blacking out.

Some potential signs of a blackout include:

  • Dizziness
  • Trouble balancing or walking
  • Headaches
  • Forgetfulness
  • Muscle twitches or spasms
  • Distractibility
  • Blurry vision
  • Impaired speech

People who are blackout drunk are often not in control of their behavior. Their impaired state of mind puts them at higher risk of compulsive behavior, physical injury, alcohol poisoning, and death.

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?

Blackouts can happen to anyone who drinks too much no matter their age or experience drinking. However, some groups are at higher risk than others.

For example, research shows that over half of college students who drink have experienced a blackout at some level. College students also binge drink at a higher rate than the general population. This is drinking for the purpose of getting drunk.

Women are another group at higher risk for blackouts. Reasons include their brains being more sensitive to alcohol and their higher levels of fat, which leads to higher blood alcohol levels.7

Other groups at increased risk for blackouts include:

  • Adolescents
  • Those who take anti-anxiety and sleep medications
  • Anyone unable to manage stress effectively
  • Those with a family history for alcohol abuse
  • People with a history of trauma

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 almost twice the legal driving limit, severely impairing impulse control, attention span, and judgment.

It makes sense, then, that people who suffer from alcohol addiction may blackout more often.

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

Blackouts occur most often when blood alcohol content level rises rapidly. 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.

Heavy drinking, binge drinking, and alcohol use disorder (AUD) are linked to more frequent blackouts. 

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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, it's significantly impaired, leading to the person acting impulsively and making bad decisions.

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 physical and mental health problems. This is because blacking out damages the brain’s frontal lobe, which controls cognitive function.

Chronically blacking out 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.

Other tips to follow include:

  • Eat and hydrate before, during, and after drinking
  • Be cautious of drinking if you're on sleep or anxiety medication
  • Refrain from binge drinking
  • Sip or "nurse" your drink rather than "downing" it quickly

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Treatment Options for Alcohol Misuse & Addiction 

Addiction treatment programs for alcoholism can take various forms. Approaches depend on the person in question and may include:

If you or someone you know is blacking out often or struggling with alcohol abuse, reach out for professional help. You don’t have to navigate this journey alone.

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Resources

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  1. Alcohol Overdose What Should You Do?,” Alcohol Poisoning - What to Do
  2. Alcohol Questions and Answers,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 15 Jan. 2020
  3. Interrupted Memories: Alcohol-Induced Blackouts,” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
  4. Marino, Elise N., and Kim Fromme. “Alcohol-Induced Blackouts and Maternal Family History of Problematic Alcohol Use,” Addictive Behaviors, Pergamon, 13 Feb. 2015
  5. “Signs of Alcohol Intoxication.” Ada, ada.com/conditions/alcohol-intoxication/
  6. 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.
  7. Paton, Alex. “Alcohol in the body.” BMJ (Clinical research ed.) vol. 330,7482 : 85-7. doi:10.1136/bmj.330.7482.85

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