Blackout Drinking: Impaired Judgement, Memory Loss, and Other Harmful Effects

Content Overview

What does it mean to Blackout?

A blackout involves memory loss due to alcohol or drug abuse. It is most common with drinking too much alcohol. Blacking out from drinking is specifically associated with binge drinking; typically, the condition is induced when a person’s blood alcohol content (BAC) reaches 0.15. For comparison, it is illegal to drive with a BAC of 0.08 in nearly every state in the US.

More on Blacking out from Alcohol

Blacking out does not mean that a person becomes unconscious, like falling asleep. Instead, people often continue to interact with others, engage in routine or potentially dangerous behaviors, and even continue to drink. People who blackout may drive themselves home, engage in a sexual encounter, destroy property, spend too much money, or choose other risky behaviors.

People who are blackout drunk are more likely to physically injure themselves. They have also been known to walk home, brush their teeth, eat meals, or go through other normal behaviors. They do not remember these behaviors because their brain does not move those experiences into memory. Once the person begins to sober up, the brain will begin to process memories normally again.

At worst, it is possible to pass out while experiencing a blackout. This is likely due to a large quantity of alcohol in the body, and it could lead to choking on vomit, suffering a head injury from falling, or experiencing alcohol poisoning. The individual may also suffer seizures due to the amount of alcohol in their body. A person who is exhibiting unusual, risky behavior or who passes out while drinking needs medical attention to prevent alcohol poisoning problems. Call 911 immediately.

Some people may also experience “brownouts.” While a blackout is the failure to remember several hours that take place before the person’s blood alcohol content drops, a brownout involves failing to remember some events but not all events. A person who experiences a brownout may recall an event when prompted by a conversation or other trigger.

Is a Blackout a Sign of Alcohol Use Disorder?

A recent study found that some brains are more prone to blackouts from alcohol or drugs than others. Alcohol, in particular, affects some neural pathways that move memories from short-term to long-term storage; people who drink heavily or binge drink may, as a result, lose memories or struggle with amnesia regarding the previous evening. This study found that some people’s memory pathways are more vulnerable to this symptom than others; generally, about 40 percent of the population is prone to blackouts when drinking heavily. While blacking out after drinking too much can be one symptom of a potential alcohol use disorder, it is not a symptom everyone experiences.

Heavy alcohol consumption, especially when it occurs routinely, has been associated with brain damage as well as damage to several other organ systems in the body. However, there is little to correlate alcohol-related blackouts and brain damage. While a person who blacks out from drinking too much regularly will likely begin to experience brain damage, this is because they drink too much too often. Blackouts are only symptoms that occur when they drink too much.

Experiencing a blackout after drinking does not mean that a person has a substance abuse problem, but it does mean that they drank more than their body could process over the course of a day or evening. People who often complain about memory loss or blacking out after drinking are more likely to have alcohol use disorder, indicated by the fact that they consume alcohol on a regular basis, not that they experience blackouts.

However, people who blackout frequently from drinking too much are also likely to have a higher tolerance to alcohol, so their BAC will often be higher than 0.15 when they experience a blackout. For people with a higher tolerance to alcohol, a BAC of 0.2 or greater leads to a blackout. This is extremely dangerous since life-threatening alcohol poisoning begins at a BAC of 0.3.

Symptoms Associated with Levels of Intoxication

There are some general symptoms that begin with different levels of intoxication. For reference, one unit is a 12-ounce beer; a 5-ounce glass of wine; or a 1.5-ounce shot of liquor, whether a straight shot or in a mixed drink.

  • 4-6 drinks: The brain begins to experience the effects of alcohol. Judgment and decision-making abilities are impaired. The person’s reaction times will get slower, and they will feel lightheaded or woozy; however, the person is still likely to remember events.
  • 8-9 drinks: Reaction times are slowed, and speech slurs. Vision may change, and issues with double vision or loss of focus may appear. A hangover is likely to set in for most moderate to heavy drinkers.
  • 10-12 drinks: Coordination is severely impaired, and the risk of an accident and personal injury is very high. Drowsiness is likely. Dehydration and headache are more likely as the body processes alcohol, which is becoming very difficult for the liver and kidneys. Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and indigestion are all likely at this stage as well.
  • More than 12 drinks: Alcohol poisoning is likely. Breathing, heart rate, and gag reflex can all change.

People who are not prone to blackouts may experience all of these symptoms in an evening of heavy drinking and remember them the next day. Those who are more prone to blackouts, however, will begin to experience them around 4-6 units of alcohol, especially when consumed in one hour; that puts the person’s BAC at 0.15 or higher.

The liver can only process one unit of alcohol per hour. When a person consumes two units of alcohol in one hour, their BAC reaches 0.08, and they legally cannot drive. They must wait until their liver has processed their beverages before they can safely get behind the wheel.

Signs and Symptoms of a Blackout

It may be hard to tell when people are experiencing a blackout because they are likely to conduct themselves normally. Many people who drink too much engage in risky behaviors, but they may remember them the next day. However, there are some indications that a person may be experiencing a blackout, so watch out for the following:

  • The person is easily distracted.
  • They repeat themselves often during conversation.
  • The individual continually forgets where they are or what they were doing.
  • They are unable to hold the thread of a conversation.
  • They appear unconcerned about the thoughts or feelings of those around them.
  • They choose to participate in risky behaviors that they may not perform when sober or tipsy.
  • The person has consumed a lot of alcohol in a short period of time, or they have been drinking without eating or drinking water.

Demographics of Blackout Drinking

Women are more prone to blackouts than men, largely because they become intoxicated from consuming less alcohol. Women have a higher body fat ratio and less water-to-body-mass, which means they are physically less able to dilute and process alcohol than men.

People who smoke are more likely to blackout from consuming too much alcohol. This correlation is unclear, but it could be related to an existing addiction or problems with impulsive or compulsive behaviors.

When people have friends who drink or use other recreational drugs, they are more likely to experience blackouts from drinking too much.

Short-Term and Long-Term Effects of Blackouts

Short-term effects from blacking out can include mental health problems, such as depression, or physical issues from an injury, a traumatizing personal encounter, or a sexually transmitted infection. There could be legal or financial consequences from performing illegal activities while blacked out. These issues may also occur among people who do not black out from drinking too much because inhibitions will still be lowered, and decision-making is still impacted.

Long-term effects can occur from drinking too much regularly, but again, brain damage is not directly caused by blacking out. A person who drinks heavily for a long time, and may experience frequent blackouts as a result, is more likely to experience general memory loss even if they are not intoxicated. They will have a harder time forming memories, including recent memories.

Blackouts and Alcohol Use Disorder

A person who occasionally experiences a blackout may sometimes binge drink. While binge drinking is dangerous, people who engage in this behavior on rare occasions are not considered to have alcohol use disorder; however, people who drink heavily on a regular basis are more likely to have alcohol use disorder. These individuals may or may not experience blackouts or brownouts; again, in some instances, the brain may not be prone to this symptom. However, people who are prone to blackouts and experience them regularly are likely struggling with alcohol use disorder, which will become increasingly dangerous as the body’s tolerance to alcohol increases. They are at greater risk of suffering alcohol poisoning and death if they continue to binge drink to the point of blacking out.

A blackout is one possible symptom of alcohol use disorder. Other symptoms include:

  • Drinking alone
  • Problems at work or school, including tardiness or absences and lower quality of work
  • Intense cravings for alcohol
  • Withdrawal symptoms when not drinking
  • Financial problems from consuming alcohol instead of paying for important things like rent or food
  • Other health problems associated with alcohol, including stomach problems, liver issues, weight gain or rapid weight loss, thiamine deficiency, kidney problems, and more
  • Lying about how much or how often drinking occurs
  • Drinking far more than seven beverages per week

Fortunately, if a person seeks help to detox safely from alcohol and enters a rehabilitation program, many physical and mental symptoms will improve or even reverse in some instances. Early intervention is the best way to ensure the highest degree of recovery from the effects of alcohol abuse.

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