Blackouts from Alcohol

By Tim Wood

Published: October 20, 2020

Alcohol-induced blackouts are one of the most dangerous side effects of alcohol abuse. Blackouts often lead to the person ending up in a dangerous or highly regrettable scenario.

Not only that, if the person is binge drinking regularly, (and, as a result, blacking out,) the person is at high risk for long-term physical and psychological health issues, such as liver disease, decreased brain function, and Alcohol Use Disorder.

So, what exactly is a blackout?

When a person blacks out, they temporarily lose their ability to create long-term memories. Therefore, they will be able to recall anything that happened before the blackout, but they will not remember anything that occurred during the blackout. This occurrence is a common result of binge drinking.

When a person’s blood alcohol content (or BAC) percentage rises at a rapid rate, the part of the brain responsible for long-term memory becomes impaired, resulting in a blackout. A blackout that falls into one of two categories: a partial blackout, or a complete blackout.

1. Partial blackouts

A partial blackout means that the person’s ability to retain memories is impaired, but not completely blocked. Therefore, they might remember small fragments of what happened. Or, they might start to remember bits of information if a particular trigger occurs that allows them to recall it. This type of blackout is also called a fragmentary blackout, or a grey out.

2. Complete blackouts

A complete blackout means that the person cannot remember anything that occurred during the blackout, and no circumstances will bring back the memory. Their brain was completely blocked from retaining long-term memory and, thus, anything that took place during the blackout will not be remembered.

Signs that a person is experiencing a blackout

It can be difficult to tell whether a person is experiencing a blackout, as everybody’s alcohol tolerance is different. Somebody could be intoxicated but not experience the memory loss, while for others it could be another story.

And, while a person’s memory is impaired, they still retain other skills, such as engaging in conversation. That being said, there are a few signs to look out for that could point to a person experiencing an alcohol-induced blackout:

  1. The person is repeating themselves a lot, not recalling that they just said what they’re repeating
  2. They are becoming easily distracted
  3. They may begin to engage in behaviours that they typically would not engage in. Things that they will likely find regrettable
  4. The person will significantly lose their filter and say whatever comes to mind

Who has a higher risk of experiencing a blackout?

A person’s chances of experiencing a blackout while binge drinking depends on their hormones, size, body fat percentage, and gender. Studies have shown that teenagers and young adults have a higher chance of blacking out than older adults do.

Particularly young adults in college, as binge drinking is a common activity on college campuses, and such an environment often encourages others to drink excessively as well.

Studies have also shown that women are more prone to blacking out than men are. This is due to a few key biological factors:

  1. Women have lower concentrations of the alcohol dehydrogenase enzyme (or ADH). This enzyme metabolizes alcohol. Because of the lower concentration, women have a higher blood alcohol content percentage, which makes it more likely for them to get heavily intoxicated
  2. Generally speaking, women have a higher body fat percentage than men do. Which results in them maintaining a higher amount of alcohol in their bloodstream
  3. Men have more water weight than women. Because of that, alcohol isn’t as diluted in a woman’s bloodstream

However, with all that being said, anybody could experience a blackout if they drink too much. Binge drinking is a dangerous habit, one that any person could develop. And, therefore, any person could experience blackouts due to heavy alcohol consumption.

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What happens to the brain that causes a blackout?

The hippocampus is a part of the brain that cannot develop a long-term tolerance to the effects of alcohol. This is the part of the brain that is critical in the process of forming memories. Because it cannot develop a tolerance for alcohol, it cannot create memories while under the influence of alcohol.

Other parts of the brain that are responsible for things such as walking, talking, and reacting, can develop a tolerance for alcohol, even though these activities may still be impaired. That is why a person can continue to perform these activities and tasks even while experiencing a blackout due to binge drinking.

When does drinking become binge drinking?

Before we continue, we would like to go over the topic of binge drinking as a whole. A safe level of drinking has been determined as one drink a day for women and a maximum of two drinks a day for men. This is because a person’s liver can process about one drink (0.6 ounces of alcohol) in an hour. Therefore, drinks that are considered to be “one” drink include:

  1. 12 ounces of beer.
  2. 5 ounces of wine.
  3. 1.5 ounces, or a shot, of hard liquor.
  4. 8 ounces of malt liquor.

Binge drinking has been classified as the consumption of at least 4 drinks for women, or at least 5 drinks for men, within a 2-hour timeframe. The liver cannot process the alcohol fast enough, which leads to heavy intoxication, which often leads to a blackout.

Health problems associated with binge drinking

Binge drinking can lead to a plethora of health issues, both short and long term. This could be from the binge drinking itself, or from actions committed during a state of being “blackout drunk.”

  1. A person could start exhibiting violent behaviour while experiencing extreme intoxication/a blackout
  2. A person could engage in sexual activities with someone in an unsafe manner, which could result in them receiving a sexually transmitted disease
  3. The aforementioned activity could also lead to an unwanted pregnancy. And, if the person has an alcohol problem, there is a high risk of a bad outcome for the pregnancy. The person could miscarry, the child could be stillborn, or the child could have severe birth defects
  4. The person may experience even more memory issues
  5. The person could develop Alcohol Use Disorder, or AUD, which is a dependence on alcohol
  6. In the future, someone could develop chronic health issues as a result of heavy drinkings in the past, such as cancer, heart problems, and liver disease, just to name a few

Short-and-long-term health problems of blackouts

As stated in the beginning, a blackout is one of the most dangerous side effects of alcohol abuse. You’re in a state where you lose control over yourself, which can have many negative effects, both in a physical and psychological sense.

It also puts you in danger of your surroundings, as you’re more likely to take risks that you would not normally take. Risks that could result in undesirable outcomes, including injury or even death.

Blackouts occur when someone has been drinking heavily. And drinking heavily on a regular basis has been shown to do damage to the frontal lobe. This part of the brain is responsible for cognitive function, and it also plays a role in memory formation.

The frontal lobe is one of the main parts of the brain to be impaired due to alcohol. And if this impairment occurs frequently and excessively, permanent damage can be done to the lobe. This can affect your thought process, your personality, and your overall behaviour, just to name a few examples.

Studies show that alcohol delays various signals from the brain, including involuntary responses. This includes your gag reflex. And it is a well-known fact that heavy intoxication often results in vomiting. If someone becomes intoxicated to the point of blacking out and ends up falling asleep, they risk choking on their own vomit.

A blackout also increases your chances of injuring yourself. For example, consider this scenario: you might get the idea that you’re able to safely drive, which is what many drunk people believe. You get in the car, fully confident in your driving abilities, and you end up getting in a car accident. When the intoxication wears off, you’re in the hospital, and you cannot remember why.

How to prevent a blackout

For some, it is best to abstain from alcohol consumption altogether. Those who have a high risk of developing an alcohol dependency should avoid alcoholic beverages completely in order to ensure that they do not develop Alcohol Use Disorder.

But for those who can consume alcohol with a lower risk of developing an addiction, here are some ways to prevent blacking out:

  1. Do not drink on an empty stomach. Be sure you eat before, during, and after consuming alcohol
  2. Drink glasses of water between alcoholic beverages. This way your thirst will be quenched partially by the water and you will feel less tempted to drink more alcohol
  3. Sip your drinks slowly. This way, you can easily tell how the alcohol is affecting you, and you can tell when you’ve reached your limit. When you chug drinks, the effects may kick in all at once, and you’ll be drunk before you know it. Therefore, to stay safe, take it slowly


Ready to get help?

To discover your road to recovery, call us today on 0800 111 41 08

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By Tim Wood

Tim enjoys writing about addiction and recovery, this topic has personally affected him, fuelling his desire to help others.