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Have you ever awoken after a night of drinking without the memory of what you did? Alcohol-induced blackouts, commonly referred to as alcohol-induced amnesia, occur for various reasons depending on the individual and various other factors. Whatever the cause or reason, blacking out from alcohol abuse is highly dangerous.
Alcohol is one of the leading causes of health issues in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 88,000 people die each year from alcohol-related causes, such as motor vehicle accidents and health issues like liver disease. Excessive drinking is responsible for 1 in 10 deaths among working-age adults aged 20-64 years of age. The CDC defines the most common form of excessive drinking as binge drinking. Binge drinking is defined by NIAAA as a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels to 0.08 g/dL., or higher, which typically occurs:
Binge drinking is dangerous because it increases a person’s risk of experiencing alcohol-related injuries, health related problems, and black outs. Blacking out involves memory loss due to excessive drinking, most commonly binge drinking.
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Blacking out, also known as alcohol-induced blackouts, are a temporary loss of memory as a result of rapid consumption of alcohol. The most common excessive form of drinking is binge drinking. When a person is in a black out, they are temporarily unable to form new long-term memories while relatively maintaining other skills such as having conversations, eating, or even driving. This is because alcohol interferes with the ability to form new long-term memories. As the amount of alcohol consumed increases, so does the magnitude of memory impairment. When alcohol is consumed at rapid rates, it can produce either partial (fragmentary) blackouts or complete (en bloc) blackouts.
Partial blackouts Occur when a person is drinking alcohol at rapid rates resulting in memory formation that is partially blocked. This blockage prevents the transfer of short-term memory to long-term storage, resulting in the ability to recall only some portion of the events during the time they were drinking.
Complete blackouts occur when a person is drinking alcohol in large quantities at rapid rates and has an inability to recall entire events during the time they were drinking.
In addition to having high blood alcohol concentration, there are other characteristics that increase the risk of having a blackout. According to the Journal of Drug and Alcohol Dependence, some of the main characteristics that influence whether or not a person experiences blackouts include gender, ethnicity, genetics, how alcohol is consumed, and rate of consumption.
There is a stronger correlation between alcohol-induced blackouts when alcohol is consumed at rapid rates then large quantities. Researchers have found that all alcohol-induced blackout periods occurred after a rapid rise in blood alcohol levels. According to recent research, drinking on an empty stomach can also increase the risk of blacking out as this can drastically raise one’s BAC.
One of the factors that influence alcohol-induced black outs is gender. Women are at greater risk of blacking out than men, even with lower levels of alcohol consumption. A few common reasons that women are at greater risk of blackouts include:
All of these factors increase the likelihood of women experiencing blackouts at higher rates than men.
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It may be difficult to identify when someone is having a blackout as the person will most often continue engaging in regular behaviors, such as talking, eating, or even having sex. Blacking out is more common than most would guess. Although it is difficult to detect, there are some indicators that a person may be in a blackout to watch out for, including:
If you tend to black out frequently, the best way to prevent blacking out is total abstinence from alcohol. Blacking out is not considered a sign of having an alcohol use disorder (AUD), however, individuals who blackout are at a higher risk for developing an AUD. Alcohol-induced blackouts can be prevented by following a few smart and simple tips, such as:
Alcohol interferes with the brain’s ability to form new memories. As the amount of alcohol consumed increases, so does the magnitude of memory impairments. Short-term effects of blacking out include mental health problems, including depression or anxiety, or physical problems, such as physical injuries. Other consequences include financial or legal trouble due to engaging in risky behavior while in a blackout. Although these are risks that can occur when not in a blackout, there is an increased risk of them occurring when in a blackout due to lack of awareness and poor decision-making.
Chronic alcohol abuse can damage nerve cells and permanently impact memory and learning. Research indicates that it is unlikely that a person will develop brain damage due to black outs; however, there is a correlation between blacking out and problems related to the formation, storage, and retrieval of new memories in those who report a long history of blacking out from alcohol. This is due to damage that occurs to processes in the hippocampus from long-term rapid alcohol consumption.
Although blackouts do not necessarily indicate that a person has a drinking problem, they may increase the risk of developing an alcohol use disorder (AUD). It can be frightening waking up after having an alcohol-induced blackout and not remembering what you said or did the night before. If you or someone you love struggles with blacking out, now may be the time to reach out for help. Contact a treatment provider today to learn more about treatment options available.
Theresa Parisi is a Certified Addiction Professional (CAP), Certified Behavioral Health Case Manager (CBHCM), and International Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor (ICADC) with over 12 years of experience in the addiction treatment field.
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