The Dangers Of Blacking Out
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:
- For women, 4 or more drinks during a single occasion (usually about 2 hours).
- For men, 5 or more drinks during a single occasion (usually about 2 hours).
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.
What Is Blacking Out?
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 (Fragmentary) 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 (En Bloc) Blackouts
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.
What Causes A Blackout?
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.
Women And Blacking Out
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:
- Women have considerably less water weight than men, so alcohol is less diluted in the blood stream.
- Women have much lower concentrations of the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH), which metabolizes alcohol before it passes into the bloodstream. As a result, women have a higher BAC and experience greater intoxication than men.
- In general, women have higher levels of body fat than men; therefore, women maintain higher concentrations of alcohol in their bloodstream than men.
- Studies show that women’s brains are more sensitive to the mind-altering effects of alcohol than men.
All of these factors increase the likelihood of women experiencing blackouts at higher rates than men.
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Signs And Symptoms Of A Blackout
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:
- The person is easily distracted.
- The person continuously forgets what they are talking about or what they are doing.
- The person frequently repeats the same thing over and over again without memory of repeating themselves.
- The person exhibits lack of awareness of their surroundings.
- The person exhibits a lack of concern for others’ thoughts and feelings.
- The person chooses to engage in risky behaviors that are unlike their usual behavior.
- The person has consumed large quantities of alcohol over a short period of time.
How To Prevent Blackouts
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:
- Eat food before and while drinking alcohol.
- Hydrate yourself with water between each alcoholic beverage.
- Slow down your drinking speed (rapid consumption is a key ingredient reported by people who black out).
- Avoid drinking straight shots of liquor; consuming weaker drinks can help prevent blackouts.
- Being well-rested prior to drinking can help prevent blackouts.
- Be aware of the environment you are in; people who drink in new or strange environments have a naturally reduced tolerance to alcohol.
- Stay away from drinking games, as these games promote rapid consumption of alcohol.
- Avoid mixing alcohol with medications or any other drugs, as this increases intoxication and can produce blackouts.
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Short And Long-term Effects Of Blacking Out
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.
Help Is Available
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 received her bachelor’s degree in Addiction Science and Psychology from Minnesota State University in Mankato, Minnesota in 2010. She is currently working towards her master’s degree in Mental Health Counseling at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Florida. She is a Certified Addiction Professional (CAP), Certified Behavioral Health Case Manager (CBHCM), and International Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor (ICADC) by the Florida Certification Board. Theresa is passionate about recovery having gone through addiction herself.
- More from Theresa Parisi
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fact Sheets - Alcohol Use and Your Health. Retrieved on December 4, 2019 at https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Drinking Levels Defined. Retrieved on December 4, 2019 at https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/moderate-binge-drinking
- ScienceDirect. Alcohol-Related Blackouts Across 55 Weeks of College: Effects of European-American Ethnicity, Female Sex, and Low Level of Response to Alcohol. Retrieved on December 4, 2019 at https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0376871616309723
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Male and Female Sensitivity to Alcohol-Induced Brain Damage. Retrieved on December 4, 2019 at https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh27-2/181-185.htm