Around 50% of people who drink alcohol experience blackouts at least once in their lifetime. This might seem like no big deal, but alcoholic blackouts are dangerous, especially if they occur when you’re performing a dangerous activity or are in a critical situation.
But what causes alcoholic blackouts in the first place? Here’s the science behind this condition, why it’s dangerous, and how you should seek treatment.
What Are Alcoholic Blackouts?
Alcohol-induced blackouts occur when blood alcohol concentration (BAC) reaches 0.16% or above. That’s when a person starts to experience memory gaps. The condition can be confused with passing out — a temporary loss of consciousness where all voluntary behaviors stop.
Blackouts, however, involve losing memory while remaining awake and conscious, allowing the person to move, interact, and appear “normal” to others. That said, they usually don’t remember anything they did during that time for several hours or even days.
That’s because the hippocampus (part of the brain responsible for storing memories) is impaired due to alcohol shutting off its brain circuits that create episodic memories (memories of specific times and places).
The higher blood alcohol levels rise, the longer and more frequent the blackouts become. In fact, the odds of having a blackout increase by 50% when a person’s BAC reaches 0.22%.
What Are the Different Types of Blackouts?
There are two types of alcohol-related blackouts:
- Fragmentary Blackouts – Also known as “brownouts” and “grayouts,” these happen when you can remember some parts of the blackout period but not others. For instance, you may remember dancing at a party but not remember how you got there.
- En Bloc Blackouts – These happen when you can’t remember anything about the blackout period. They can last for hours or days.
Signs and Symptoms of Alcoholic Blackouts
Identifying the signs and symptoms of blackouts is difficult because people experiencing them are fully capable of engaging in complex activities.
For instance, they can operate vehicles, participate in conversations, and perform other actions such as spending money or engaging in unprotected intercourse.
However, symptoms of alcohol-induced blackouts may resemble those of intoxication and can include:
- Muscle spasms
- Vision changes
- Difficulty speaking, talking, standing, and walking
- Impaired judgment
If you think you or someone you know is experiencing these symptoms, it is important to get help immediately.
Causes of Alcoholic Blackouts
There are several causes of alcoholic blackouts. These include:
1. Binge Drinking
Blackouts are commonly associated with binge drinking, which is defined as the consumption of five or more drinks for men and four or more drinks for women within two hours.
This can quickly lead to a BAC of 0.08g/dl or higher, which can impair the brain’s ability to transfer short-term memories to long-term storage and cause blackouts.
2. Combining Medications with Alcohol
Blackouts can also occur if you combine medications like benzodiazepines (Xanax, Librium, Valium, and Ativan) and opioids like oxycodone (OxyContin) with alcohol. This is because benzos and opioids activate the GABA neurotransmitter, inducing brain slowdown.
When combined with alcohol, they can compromise cognitive function and memory formation. Accidental overdose is particularly common because they can stay for anywhere from 12 to 72 hours in your system, depending on the type you take.
3. Drinking Hard Liquor
You’re also more likely to get blackouts if you drink hard liquor like vodka, whiskey, and rum as they contain more alcohol than wine or beer.
However, your susceptibility depends on your weight, age, gender, whether you ate before drinking, and how much alcohol you consumed.
Complications of Alcoholic Blackouts
Alcoholic blackouts are extremely dangerous and can have the following complications:
Someone in a blackout state could end up in risky situations, like walking home alone or driving a car. There’s also a chance they might engage in unsafe behavior, such as unprotected sex, which can lead to STDs or pregnancies.
Someone who’s blackout drunk may get aggressive or violent, starting fights or causing harm to themselves or others.
3. Mental Changes
The frontal lobe is particularly vulnerable to damage from long-term alcohol intake. Drinking too much over too long can impair this section of the brain, which can affect your ability to control impulses, make decisions, and retain short-term memory.
4. Physical Illness
Alcohol misuse over long periods can cause serious health conditions like heart disease, stroke, liver damage, liver cancer, breast cancer, bowel cancer, and pancreatitis.
In some cases, excessive drinking to the point of blacking out can result in alcohol poisoning if BAC exceeds 0.30 g%. This can be life-threatening, leading to coma and death.
Who Is at a Higher Risk of Having Alcoholic Blackouts?
Some people are more likely to have alcoholic blackouts than others. These include the following:
1. Young Adults
Young adults are highly sensitive to the memory disruption and neurotoxic effects of alcohol. They’re also less sensitive to alcohol’s intoxicating effects compared to adults. As a result, they may consume higher quantities of alcohol compared to adults without feeling as “buzzed.”
This can cause them to have significantly elevated BAC before experiencing blackouts, which can be dangerous.
Plus, young adults who start consuming alcohol before the age of 15 have a four times increase in the risk of developing alcohol addiction as adults — compared to those who start drinking at the age of 21.
Women experience blackouts more often. They are, on average, physically smaller than men, possess a higher percentage of body fat, and have less blood volume to dilute the alcohol they consume — so their blood alcohol levels rise more rapidly.
According to research conducted in 2017, women tend to experience blackouts with three fewer drinks than men. Another study in 2015 showed that women who consumed just one additional drink beyond their regular intake had a 13% higher likelihood of blacking out compared to men.
People with a maternal history of alcohol-related issues have a higher susceptibility to blackouts.
A study involving over 1,000 pairs of twins also found that genetic factors contributed to approximately half of the instances of blackouts experienced during adulthood.
This genetic influence doesn’t just stop there. It’s also reflected in brain dynamics.
A longitudinal study that focused on teenagers and young adults aged 12 to 21 showed that those who eventually developed alcohol abuse issues and faced blackouts had a lower ability to inhibit their actions (self-control issues). This neurobiological trait was evident in their brain scans before they began consuming alcohol.
4. Drinking Constantly
Blackouts are more likely when people drink in ways that shoot up their BAC quickly — such as during pre-partying and pregaming.
When the BAC hits 0.08%, young adults who’ve had blackouts show more noticeable memory issues and more significant changes in memory-related brain function than those who haven’t experienced blackouts.
How to Avoid Blackout Drinking
If you find yourself drinking constantly, here are some ways you could cut back on your intake:
1. Count Your Drinks
Before setting a number for yourself, count how many drinks you have per week. If that’s more than eight for women and 15 for men, you’re drinking too much. In this case, you have to drink less — preferably two drinks/day for men and one/day for women.
2. Avoid Social Drinking
Social drinking is probably one of the biggest contributors to developing a drinking problem. If you find yourself drinking more when going to a bar with friends, it’s best to have non-alcoholic drinks (if you absolutely have to go) or switch to an alcohol-free social environment, like a cafe.
You should also try to avoid festivals and other large gatherings if they prompt you to drink more.
3. Drink Slowly
If you are drinking, don’t take big gulps. Instead, sip slowly so the alcohol doesn’t directly hit your brain (yes, that’s a thing) and raise your BAC too quickly. This should reduce your likelihood of experiencing blackouts.
You could also alternate alcohol with water or other non-alcoholic drinks, such as sweetened juices or smoothies, to further decrease your chances of having blackouts.
Treatment for Alcoholic Blackouts
If you’ve been struggling with alcohol and reining in your daily drinking isn’t helping, here are some treatment options:
Alcoholic blackouts can impair your memory, cause balance issues, and increase the risk of physical injuries. If you’ve had a blackout and don’t know what to do, reaching out to therapists or counselors can help.
They can help you understand the reasons behind your alcoholism, create a treatment plan you can stick to, and answer all your questions about recovery.
If your blackouts are happening frequently, you should schedule an appointment with a healthcare provider as soon as possible. They’ll perform tests that’ll help you understand why you’re having these episodes and what you can do about them.
Your doctor may also prescribe medications like gabapentin and naltrexone to help you control the cravings. These drugs eliminate the pleasurable effects of drinking alcohol, helping you quit.
3. Support Groups
Talking about your experiences with people who are on the same recovery journey can help. This is where local or online mutual support groups come in.
You can find local support groups by searching for them on Google or asking your healthcare provider.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do People Blackout More Often as They Get Older?
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), blackouts are common in people who drink more regardless of their age.
That said, increased alcohol consumption leads to an increased risk of liver disease, memory problems, and acute intoxication in older people.
When Should I See a Professional About Blackouts?
While blackouts may not indicate an alcohol use disorder, experiencing even a single one is dangerous. If you find yourself in this situation, it might be time to reassess your relationship to alcohol and talk to a therapist or counselor.
How Is Being a Blackout Drunk Different From Binge Drinker?
Being blackout drunk means consuming enough alcohol in three to four hours to elevate your BAC to 0.15%. Binge alcoholic behavior, however, is when you consume four or more drinks in two hours for women and five or more drinks in two hours for men.
Alcohol Addiction Recovery with Curednation
If you’ve been struggling with alcoholic blackouts, deciding to enter treatment is the first step on your journey to recovery. It can help you reclaim your life and carve a better future for yourself…and you don’t have to do it alone.
At Curednation, we provide evidence-based, tailored treatment for alcohol and substance use disorder. Our telehealth-based alcoholism treatment programs address every aspect of your emotional, mental, and physical health.
If you, or a loved one, are struggling with alcohol addiction, book an appointment with our therapists today.