Alcohol-induced blackouts cause an amnesia-like state that results in partial or complete memory loss of the time spent drinking.
Drinking large amounts of alcohol quickly, especially on an empty stomach, are risk factors for an alcohol-induced blackout. It’s estimated that 50 percent of people who drink have encountered a blackout. The risk of experiencing a blackout can be dependent on a person’s tolerance, their body makeup, and other factors.
An alcohol-induced blackout can wipe out a person’s memory, either in full or in part. After drinking, a person may feel as if they’ve lost chunks of time and wake up not remembering events from the previous night.
When a person has a blackout they will not be able to remember events that happened while they were drinking, a condition which is similar to amnesia. Because of this, blackouts are also referred to as alcohol-induced amnesia.
The exact amount of alcohol needed to cause a blackout can vary per person, however, scientists have determined that blackouts frequently begin at a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.20 percent, but can begin at as low as 0.14 percent.
Some people may only have one blackout in their lives, while others may have these alcohol-induced memory lapses more frequently. One study found that 11.4 percent of women and 20.9 percent of men had three or more blackouts in the space of a year.
Comprehensive alcohol addiction treatment can provide men and women who experience these or other forms of alcohol-related harm with help and hope, so they’re empowered to begin living an alcohol-free life.
A blackout doesn’t just stop a person from remembering an event. In certain cases, it actually prevents a person from making the memory in the first place. Some people may forget a conversation, others a span of several hours, while in the worst cases a person may black out and not remember several days.
There are two types of blackouts, partial (fragmentary) or complete (en bloc). This means that a person forgets either a piece of their evening or the entire night. Certain research has shown that fragmentary blackouts are more common than complete ones.
When a person has a complete blackout they will be unable to recall events no matter how hard they try, because the memory loss is permanent. On the other hand, some people with fragmentary blackouts may be able to remember events by cues or reminders. These people may not realize that they’re even missing or forgetting a portion of their evening until the memory is triggered in this way.
It’s important to remember that blacking out is not the same as passing out. While a person may wake up the next morning and not remember how they got home and into bed, this is because they’re unable to remember a specific period of time between drinking and returning home.
Outwardly, it can be hard to determine if a person is going through a blackout. To an observer, a person typically appears to be awake and functioning during the blackout. In this time, a person may carry on conversations, drive, have sex and interact with people in other ways, only to find later they have no recollection of these events.
The Causes Of Alcohol-Induced Memory Blackouts
A blackout occurs after an episode of heavy drinking, or when a person consumes a large quantity of alcohol. Binge drinking is a major contributing factor to this state.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, binge drinking occurs when a person drinks enough alcohol to bring their blood alcohol concentration levels to 0.08 g/dL. Generally, this happens in roughly two hours and takes:
- four or more drinks for women.
- five or more drinks for men.
While the amount of alcohol a person drinks has a major impact on this condition, researchers believe that the way and rate by which it’s consumed has a critical role as well.
While a high BAC is a risk factor for a memory blackout, experts believe that a blackout is more likely to occur when a person’s blood alcohol concentration rises to a high level in a short period of time. Some studies have shown that people who reached a high BAC slowly did not have a blackout as opposed to a person whose BAC spiked quickly.
People who rapidly drink alcohol on an empty stomach may be at a greater risk of this condition, as these behaviors can raise the blood alcohol concentration much faster. Also, scientific evidence lists several factors that may put a person at a higher risk for blackouts:
- drinking when fatigued
- frequency of intoxication
- genetic factors
- going on a bender
- gulping or chugging drinks
- a lifetime diagnosis of alcohol dependence
- a past brain insult or injury
Not every person who drinks a lot of alcohol quickly will have a blackout. However, for those who do, these effects are largely due to the way alcohol affects the brain. Even small amounts of alcohol can impact a person’s memory and ability to think clearly. The greater the amount of alcohol consumed, the greater the detriment of these important cognitive functions.
Studies have shown that a person may be able to remember an event minutes after it occurs, however, due to a blackout they may not remember it a half hour later or the next day when they’re sober. This suggests that alcohol disrupts the process that converts short-term memories into long-term ones.
The process of making and remembering memories occurs in stages. A memory is made and stored before it can be retrieved. Research shows that alcohol can negatively affect each step in this process. Additionally, alcohol impairs the hippocampus, a region of the brain that is largely responsible for forming new autobiographical memories, or memories about a person’s experiences.
Who Gets Blackouts?
Scientists continue to research and learn more about blackouts. In the past, a commonly held belief was that blackouts happened mainly to people who were dependent on alcohol, hence the term alcoholic blackout. However, research now shows that blackouts can happen to both social drinkers and people who struggle with alcoholism.
This risk runs particularly high in the college population due to high rates of binge drinking. Experts caution that over the course of a two-week period, just over one in 10 college students report that they can’t remember portions of a night. Research has found that women may be more vulnerable to blackouts and take longer to recover from the cognitive impairment caused by them than do men.
While blackouts do not mean a person is addicted to alcohol, they can point to dangerous patterns of alcohol abuse. Alcohol-induced memory blackouts are part of the criteria for an alcohol use disorder. Continuing to drink after having had a memory blackout is a component of one of the 11 criteria for an alcohol use disorder.
An alcohol use disorder can range from mild to moderate to severe and causes functional impairment that is frequently accompanied by alcohol-induced health problems, relationship issues, and social difficulties.
Risks And Dangers Of Alcohol-Induced Blackouts
The dangers of alcohol-induced blackouts are those that accompany alcohol abuse and addiction in general. Foremost, if a person isn’t careful, alcohol abuse can quickly gain momentum and become an addiction. Once a person becomes dependent on alcohol, they’ll likely go into withdrawal should they stop drinking. Alcohol withdrawal can be dangerous and even fatal.
Since blackouts may be caused by binge drinking, it’s important to consider the other risks caused by this form of alcohol abuse. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these may include:
- alcohol dependence
- alcohol poisoning (alcohol overdose)
- acts of violence (homicide, intimate partner violence, sexual assault, and suicide)
- cancer (breast, colon, esophagus, liver, mouth, and throat)
- chronic cardiovascular problems (heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke)
- fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs)
- liver disease
- memory and learning problems
- unprotected sex
- unplanned pregnancy
- sexually transmitted diseases
- sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
- unintentional injuries (burns, car crashes and falls)
Alcohol abuse and/or addiction has also been linked to serious problems that affect the brain, such as:
- alcoholic dementia
- brain shrinkage
- a disruption in the growth of new brain cells
- hepatic encephalopathy (loss of brain function due to liver damage)
- mental health problems
- Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome (“wet brain”)
Many people who struggle with alcohol abuse or addiction attempt to hide it. However, if a person looks closely, certain signs may help them discover that their loved one has a drinking problem.
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Signs Of Alcohol Abuse And Addiction
When drinking gets out of control, and as a person moves closer to addiction, certain behavioral signs may point to an alcohol use disorder. A person may hide alcohol and lie about their drinking habits during this time or become defensive when asked about their drinking.
Despite damage to their health, career, and relationships, a person may continue to drink. In many cases, a person will begin to lose interest in activities or hobbies they once enjoyed.
Many people will struggle to control the amount they drink, fighting frequent and compulsive urges to drink more (cravings). As a person begins drinking on a regular basis, they may begin to develop a tolerance and need more alcohol to create the pleasurable effect they seek.
In addition to these changes, certain physical and mental signs of alcohol abuse and addiction may become apparent:
- acting in uncharacteristic ways
- appetite changes
- blurred or double vision
- disrupted sleep
- impaired reaction time
- mood shifts
- nausea and vomiting
- panic attacks
- poor concentration
- poor reflexes
- sleepiness at inappropriate times
- slurred speech
- swaying or difficulty walking straight
- violent behavior
Without help, addiction can dismantle a person’s life, health, and relationships. Fortunately, with the right combination of treatments, recovery from an alcohol addiction is possible.
Contact Addiction Campuses for more information on the dangers of alcohol abuse and addiction.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — Fact Sheets – Binge Drinking
- CNN News — Blackout Drunk: More Common Than You Think
- Journal of Addiction Medicine — Alcohol-Induced Blackout: Phenomenology, Biological Basis, and Gender Differences
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism — Alcohol’s Damaging Effects on the Brain, Drinking Levels Defined, What Happened? Alcohol, Memory Blackouts, and the Brain
- ScienceDaily — Alcohol-Induced Blackouts: The Last Five Years of Research