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Home » Alcohol » Signs, Causes, and Dangers of Blackout From Drinking

Signs, Causes, and Dangers of Blackout From Drinking

/  Last Updated: 
September 29, 2023
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girl after blacking out from drinking too much alcohol last night

Have you ever experienced “one of those nights"?

An old friend shows up and invites you to an evening out. You've had a terrific day so far, and now, being in quite high spirits, you find yourself getting carried away in the moment.

By the time the taxi arrives, you have already drunk far more than you usually would, and the night hasn't even started yet.

At the bar, someone thrusts champagne into your grasp. Ten minutes later, a round of tequila feels like a bright idea. Then another round. Then another.

Your slurred suggestion of “maybe we should eat” is ignored as a round of gigantic cocktails arrives, followed by more of those awful shots.

The next morning, feeling like a wild animal is running rampant inside your cranium, you open your phone and browse the photos - all 88 of them - and remember absolutely nothing.

It looks like you wound up in a random nightclub at some point, but you are without the slightest memory of being there.

Thinking about it, you can't even remember how you got home.

It almost sounds quite amusing and harmless, doesn't it?

But the truth is, alcohol blackouts are no laughing matter and can actually be very, very dangerous. Not only do complete blackouts bring immediate risk to your health, but they can also place you in perilous situations, sometimes even life-threatening.

Through this article, we are going to look at the signs of an alcohol blackout, the basic neurology of what causes it, why they are so extremely dangerous, and (more importantly) why you should avoid them at all costs.

So What Is a Blackout, Exactly?

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) describes alcohol blackouts and alcohol-induced amnesia as moments where memory loss or "gaps" appear in a person's memory due to events transpiring while under the influence of alcohol.

However, there is a very common misinterpretation of equating alcohol-related blackouts and memory loss with "passing out." The latter describes a brief lapse of consciousness characterized by a halt in voluntary actions. Fainting, in other words.

In stark contrast, an alcohol blackout signifies memory loss even though the person remains awake, alert, and fully compos mentis. To a casual observer, someone experiencing these types of blackouts might even appear entirely lucid and sound of mind.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse, the root cause behind blackouts is (quite obviously) excessive alcohol consumption, which disrupts the brain's mechanism of shifting memories from short-term to long-term storage and inhibits the formation of new memories.

There are quite interesting biological reasons why it happens - and we will touch on that later in this article - but the basic answer is that too much alcohol often results in a "drunk blackout" because the part of our brain responsible for memory is affected when alcohol delays signals around the brain.

There are two distinct types of alcohol blackouts. A fragmentary blackout results in spotty memories interspersed with memory lapses. On the other hand, a complete blackout means an absolute lack of recollection, primarily because memories either never formed or are irretrievable.

While passing out and blacking out from drinking are two separate things, a general path from blackout drinking to passing out is common, too. When someone passes out due to heavy drinking, it is a sign of alcohol poisoning, which is a rather nasty medical condition that requires immediate attention.

Unfortunately, alcohol poisoning isn't always caught because it is commonly overlooked.

Symptoms and Signs of Alcohol Blackouts

blacking out drunk

Detecting the signs of blackout drinking is not always an easy undertaking because anyone who is blackout drunk can still execute normal-looking actions and behaviors. People in a blackout might actively participate in discussions or (rather stupidly) operate vehicles, for example.

They will then engage in activities they won't recollect the next day, such as making purchases, having full-blown conversations, or (quite commonly) indulging in risky behaviors like unprotected sex.

The main reason they fail to remember these actions is the interruption in transferring these memories to long-term storage in the brain.

Generally speaking, common symptoms of alcohol-fueled memory blackouts closely mirror those of general alcohol intoxication. These symptoms may include:

  • A swirling sensation or dizziness.
  • Persistent headaches.
  • Involuntary muscle twitches.
  • Alterations in vision.
  • Challenges in articulation.

However, as mentioned previously, the person in question might remain oblivious to being blackout drunk. In fact, they may remain utterly unaware of this cognitive disconnect, with absolutely no idea they are entering the blackout phase.

What Leads to Blacking Out Drunk?

Blackouts are mostly associated with binge drinking, but they can also happen when people mix certain medications with alcohol - especially medications that are known to cause drowsiness.

The CDC advises that binge drinking is typified as when a man consumes five or more drinks or a woman indulges in four or more drinks within a one-hour time period, approximately.

This could also encompass a drinking pattern that elevates your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) (or blood alcohol level) to 0.08g/dl or above. In most cases, blackouts are more likely when your BAC reaches somewhere around 0.16% or exceeds it. Such a rapid surge in BAC can (and usually will) increase the chances of experiencing blackout drunk episodes.

There are various contributing factors that can affect your BAC, including weight, experience, gender, and the type of alcohol consumed. How quickly the alcohol is consumed is also a factor.

Why Does It Happen?

When someone is blackout drunk, they are entering a medical phenomenon that is scientifically termed "anterograde amnesia.", which refers to an inability to create or retain new memories.

The precise chemical intricacies responsible for blackouts remain unknown, but researchers have identified that the hippocampus — which is basically the brain's memory center — malfunctions during chronic alcohol consumption.

Alcohol is thought to modify the operations of important receptors within the brain. Consequently, steroid production becomes impaired, compromising the connectivity between brain cells, which in turn affects our learning, cognition, and memory capacities, even more so when blackout drunk.

Unsurprisingly, alcohol misuse, excessive drinking, and blackout drinking are more common among young adults. While alcohol abuse is, of course, not more common among young people, the phenomenon of blacking out certainly seems to be more frequent in the younger age group.

Who Is Most Likely to Experience Blackouts?

Having said that, it may be something of a misconception to think that only a particular set of people - such as younger adults - are prone to alcohol-induced blackouts. The fact is, if the blood alcohol concentration touches or surpasses approximately 0.16%, anyone can find themselves approaching a blackout.

Also, blending alcohol with sleep aids or anti-anxiety medications might encourage a blackout even at lower BAC thresholds.

Either way, regardless of age group, the quick surge of alcohol into the bloodstream often triggers blackouts. Factors accelerating this problem include the common mistake of consuming alcohol on an empty stomach or succumbing to way more than "just a few drinks" in social situations.

Interestingly, women often see a spike in BAC quicker than men, probably due to the usual weight difference between the sexes, generally speaking, of course. That said, all binge drinkers, without exception, regardless of gender, are exposed to blackouts.

According to one study, almost 50% of adults confessed to binge drinking in the preceding month. That's quite a staggering statistic when you take a moment to ponder it.

Stats further reveal that binge drinking is notably evident among young adults between the ages of 18 to 25, representing 29% of this demographic. On the other hand, adults aged 25 and beyond, in addition to adolescents between 12 and 17, represent just over 20% and a mere 5% of the binge-drinking population, respectively.

What Are The Dangers of Blackout Drinking?

Medical Complications

Consuming more alcohol than the body can handle can lead to severe medical emergencies, including liver damage and alcohol poisoning. There is also the risk of severe dehydration, gastric issues, and long-term cognitive impairment.

Impaired Judgment

Being blackout drunk impairs our decision-making abilities. This can lead to the following potential issues when blackouts happen:

Drink Driving: With memory loss, might forget how much alcohol they consumed and decide to drive, risking their life and others.

Sexual Risky Behaviors: It is alarmingly common for someone who has consumed alcohol in large quantities to engage in unprotected sex, exposing themselves to sexually transmitted diseases or even unplanned pregnancies.

Physical Harm: Due to disorientation and poor motor coordination, falling or getting into accidents is far more probable than when a person drinks responsibly.

Vulnerability: Being blackout drunk makes people way more susceptible to crimes like theft, assault, or even worse, as they are not fully aware of their surroundings.

Poor Impulse Control: With an impaired cognitive function and reduced inhibitions, an intoxicated person who is blacked out drunk is less likely to think things through and make informed decisions.

How to Avoid Blackout Drinking

effects of being blackout drunk for males

Avoiding blackout drinking is important not only for general memory retention but also for your overall health, safety, and well-being. By knowing how much alcohol is enough and recognizing the signs of acute intoxication, you can take measured, constructive steps to maintain control over your alcohol use.

Here are some strategies we suggest to help prevent blackout drunk episodes:

Set Your limits

It is recommended that men should limit their intake to no more than four drinks on any single day and no more than 14 drinks per week. For women, the amount is no more than three drinks on any single day and no more than seven drinks per week in total.

If you familiarize yourself with what constitutes a standard drink, you can create a plan that details both the frequency (days per week) and quantity (units per session) of your alcohol consumption.

This might sound like a complicated measure. Drinking, after all, is supposed to be fun. Formulating a 'plan' probably seems against the very nature of an enjoyable evening out. However, this is something you can mentally plan in mere seconds. Working out your weekly limits takes very little effort, and we greatly encourage you to do so. It can make a real difference to your health and well-being.

Count your drinks

Given the memory problems associated with excessive alcohol use, it's surprisingly easy to lose track of the number of alcoholic drinks one has consumed. Using modern approaches such as a tracking app can be really quite helpful in maintaining awareness of your alcohol intake.

Seek support

Suffering from alcohol abuse or even merely attempting to reduce consumption is far from easy. Alcohol use disorder can be an immense struggle, but remember that you don't have to face it alone.

By enlisting the aid of understanding friends, supportive family members, and specialized healthcare professionals, you can find not only emotional solace but practical, actionable advice, which helps approach alcohol use disorder more effectively.

Control your triggers

Everyone's relationship with alcohol is unique. Certain situations, moods, and events might inadvertently push someone towards drinking more than they had intended or returning to old patterns of alcohol abuse. The option of non-alcoholic drinks in potential trigger situations is a good way to maintain control.

Alcohol-related issues, including Alcohol abuse and alcoholism, require a clean break away from alcohol. If the cycle of moderation is too challenging, and if blackout drunk episodes continue to pose a threat to your health, professional help might be required.

Prevent Blackout Drinking with Miracles Asia

Miracles Asia, located on the beautiful, tropical island of Phuket, Thailand, can help you or a loved one who may be having a hard time with alcohol abuse and alcoholism. We provide a comprehensive approach to healing, including detox, inpatient and outpatient care, counseling, and support groups, in addition to drug therapy and nutritional Changes.

Understanding the signs of alcohol overuse, especially dangerous episodes of blackout drinking, requires positive action, and if alcohol addiction becomes a factor over time, intervention becomes absolutely crucial.

Specializing in alcohol addiction treatment, we offer tailored support to steer patients through the recovery process, combining the latest rehab strategies with the comfort of a luxurious retreat on an achingly beautiful tropical island.

Our alcohol abuse program is run by a caring team of experienced professionals, with treatment options including both medical and emotional support, designed to not only treat but to equip our patients with the tools to prevent blackout drinking but also the strength to abstain going forward.

For treatment options that really work, Miracles Asia can help. Reach out today, and begin your journey to an addiction-free life!

Article by
Catherine O'Leary
Catherine is a trained mental health and addiction professional, with over 35 years’ experience in health care and addiction recovery. She has successfully completed a Certificate of Nursing, Bachelor of Nursing, Master of Arts (health), Graduate Diploma of Advanced Psychiatric Nursing, Certificate of Drug and Alcohol Nursing, Mental Health First Aid Instructor Certification and a Diploma of Counselling.
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